Transcript

226:

Reruns
Transcript

Originally aired 12.06.2002

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/226

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Ladies and gentlemen, public radio listeners everywhere, now let us praise famous crap, OK, and not so famous crap too.

Starlee Kine

Well, there's a show called Boy Meets World. You ever seen it?

Ira Glass

No.

Starlee Kine

It's great. It's so good.

Ira Glass

It's in syndication?

Starlee Kine

Yeah, it's one of those shows that just went under the radar.

Ira Glass

Friends, we are not here today to talk about those supposedly good TV programs people who think that they're smart like to talk about when they talk about TV. We're here to talk about the stuff that makes up so much of TV. We're here to speak of reruns. And not good reruns at that, I'm talking your Matlocks, your Living Singles, your Kate & Allies. This voice you are hearing is Starlee Kine, one of the producers of our radio program. And I asked her to talk about her relationship to TV, because she's the first person I've ever met who actively prefers reruns like Boy Meets World.

Starlee Kine

And it just like was on for years, but you never knew it. And now it's just like permanently in reruns, and it's on like four different channels. But it's not very good.

Ira Glass

In fact, is it actually bad?

Starlee Kine

I think so. I mean, it's hard for me to tell at this point, but it's bad, yeah.

Ira Glass

So if it's bad, why are you watching?

Starlee Kine

It's very, very, very comforting to watch it.

Ira Glass

It's comforting because you used to watch it when you were a little kid?

Starlee Kine

No.

Ira Glass

You never saw it as a kid?

Starlee Kine

No, not that one. But Boy Meets World, it's like it didn't even matter that I didn't watch it as a little kid. I can imagine little kids being in really comfortable, carpeted family rooms and laying with their elbows propped up and watching Boy Meets World and feeling really safe. Because it's like the safest thing in the world. This family is so nuclear, it's perfect. But it's soundstages, and it looks really fake. The principal is also the kid's neighbor. You know what I mean? He's just always there and always looking after everyone.

William Russ In Boy Meets World

Hey son, how was your day?

Ben Savage In Boy Meets World

Fine.

William Russ In Boy Meets World

What did you do in school?

Ben Savage In Boy Meets World

Nothing.

William Russ In Boy Meets World

Hey, hold on right there. You know, every day I ask you, what did you do. And every day you tell me, nothing. Well, I'm tired of nothing. I mean, we both know something happened today. And I want to know what it is.

Ben Savage In Boy Meets World

I decided to be a girl.

Starlee Kine

I would imagine, if I were a little kid watching it, I'd feel so secure. Knowing that there's kids out there who feel secure is enough for me to feel comforted by it and watch it every time its on.

I try very hard to establish these things so that I have these reruns, because I live in eternal fear that the reruns are going to be gone. Like last night, I was watching TV and I couldn't find a rerun anywhere and I was panicking. The Godfather was on, and I was flipping, flipping, and I couldn't find one. I was just like, how is this possible? There was a rerun though. It was a rerun of The Nanny was on. And I don't have any relationship with it, so I was stuck.

Ira Glass

Because she's so scared of that happening, Starlee is perpetually cultivating new reruns, forcing yourself to immerse in them. Her latest is Caroline in the City.

Starlee Kine

When I watch Caroline in the City, it's like I'm really trying to find something, even though I hate it so much, so much. I hate it, every part of it. Hate the way she draws. I hate the way she talks. I hate her assistant, everything.

Ira Glass

And as you've watched Caroline in the City over the course of weeks, do you now actually like it?

Starlee Kine

I don't like it. But I know it. I am very familiar with it.

Ira Glass

And that's enough?

Starlee Kine

That's enough.

Ira Glass

What percentage of television is about just straight up comfort and what percentage is about what we think of, traditionally, as entertainment?

Starlee Kine

For me? Oh God, 80% is about comfort for me. If something good gets in there it's an accident. Or it's because I feel obligated to watch something good, because I know people are going to ask me the next day.

Ira Glass

Well, today on our radio program, a defense of not going out into the world and looking for new experiences, a defense of dwelling on what you already know, a defense of staying caught in your own personal reruns. Stories of people who have the same thing going on with some story from their own past that Starlee has with Caroline in the City and Boy Meets World.

From WBEZ Chicago, it is This American Life distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Our program today in three, yes three, acts. Act One-- Action! Action! Action! In that act the story of what happens when a person, who actually has the power to create reruns, gets stuck in a rerun. Act Two-- Marriage As Rerun. In that act, an exploration, possibly, we think, the first ever, of how in every couple, in every marriage, we are stuck hearing the same stories from our partners over and over, and what we're supposed to think of that. Act Three-- Reruns At The Back Of The Bus. In that act, Sarah Vowell explains what happens when we, as a nation, keep telling ourselves the same political fable over and over long past the point where it makes any sense to. Stay with us.

Act One. Action! Action! Action!

Ira Glass

Act One-- Action! Action! Action! Well, Starlee Kine, who you just met, somebody who loves reruns more than anyone who I've ever known, came upon a rerun moment. An entire film caught in a rerun in a way that dumbfounded even her. The film is called The Beaver Trilogy, and she put together this story about it.

Starlee Kine

10 minutes into watching The Beaver Trilogy I could already feel how much I'd be talking about it. Once it was over, I felt mournful that I'd never be able to see it again for the first time. Everything about it is so surprising and unexpected, the way movies almost never are. And what I'm going to try to do right now, here on the radio, is to recreate for you what it's like to see it.

Grooving Gary In The Beaver Trilogy

Are you typing it? Oh, wow. When can I see this?

Starlee Kine

It's starts with a hand held camera moving up to a kid in the middle of an empty parking lot. The kid's taking pictures of a parked TV news traffic helicopter. He realizes he's being filmed, and starts into a John Wayne impersonation.

Grooving Gary In The Beaver Trilogy

John Wayne? Here. Mom. Here is John Wayne. Yo, while I'll tell ya something out there in TV land, I'm hamming it up. I'll tell you.

Starlee Kine

The kid's wearing '70s clothes, bell-bottom jeans and a shirt with racing stripes. He has a Casio watch on. He looks to be in his early 20s. He cycles through a couple more impersonations, Barry Manilow, Rocky Balboa.

Grooving Gary In The Beaver Trilogy

He's a good guy, you know. He knows his fight. He knows his left from his right. He knows his left toe from his right toe, you know. He's a good guy, and he loves his wife, Adrian, you know. So, anyway. I love it up here though. I was just taking some pictures of Sky two over there, and man, it's really fantastic out here. I love it. I love it up here. I love impersonating and, by gosh, if I made the tube, I just thank you so much. I really do. So, boy I can't believe this. This is actual live, huh?

Trent Harris In The Beaver Trilogy

Well, it's not going out yet, but it will.

Grooving Gary In The Beaver Trilogy

Well, I'd like to get a picture of you. That would be great.

Trent Harris In The Beaver Trilogy

Take a picture of me taking a picture?

Grooving Gary In The Beaver Trilogy

Well, would that be all right?

Trent Harris In The Beaver Trilogy

Sure.

Grooving Gary In The Beaver Trilogy

OK, smile, you're on Candid Camera.

Starlee Kine

Don't you love this kid? You love him, but you don't know why you love him, right?

Grooving Gary In The Beaver Trilogy

Well, my day has come. It's shining.

Starlee Kine

When I saw this in the theater, I couldn't get over what a great idea he was. I loved that someone thought up a character his is so excited just to be taking pictures of a news helicopter parked on a strip of highway. It's only later, after the movie was over, that I learned that I wasn't watching a feature film at all. It's a documentary shot in 1979. This kid's real.

Trent Harris

Basically, what happened is I was working at a television station in Salt Lake City, and they had a new gadget called a video camera. And I walked out into the parking lot to test out a camera.

Starlee Kine

This is Trent Harris, the film's director.

Trent Harris

And saw this fellow, and he sort of walked up to me, and away he went. It took 30 seconds, and I was so enthralled with him that I knew that I just had to keep filming him.

Grooving Gary In The Beaver Trilogy

It's my little car. My little '64 Chevy. Hang on, let me kind of straighten it up before I get on the tube.

Trent Harris

And then he's so excited, he just keeps going, rambling, rambling, rambling.

Trent Harris In The Beaver Trilogy

Is that where your from, Beaver?

Grooving Gary In The Beaver Trilogy

Yeah, I'm from Beaver.

Trent Harris

Beaver is a small kind of farming town. It's not close to anything really.

Grooving Gary In The Beaver Trilogy

What goes on in Beaver? It's just kind of a town where you drag main at night, go to school in the daytime. I'm not in school now, but I used to be. I'm 21 now so. Just kind of out working for the Union Pacific Railroad.

Starlee Kine

It turns out that he's driven from Beaver just that very morning. His plan was to go to the news station and try and get on TV. So when Trent approached, it was almost like the Beaver kid had been expecting it.

Grooving Gary In The Beaver Trilogy

But I love hamming it up. You can tell. Well, I'm on TV. I can't believe it. Just in the right place at the right time I guess.

Starlee Kine

Part of what makes watching the movie so great is the obvious joy the two of them feel over having found each other. If Trent had wandered out five minutes later, the kid probably would have been heading back home. If the kid had come the next day, Trent wouldn't have been there filming. It was just a lucky accident that they met, and it changed their lives forever.

Trent Harris In The Beaver Trilogy

Dear Trent, how's things going up there? I hope OK. I hope I haven't bothered you in any way with the calls that I have made. If I have, I'm sorry, really.

Starlee Kine

This is the very next scene. There's an image of somebody holding a handwritten note. You have no idea what's happening. And slowly you realize that it's a letter from the Beaver Kid. He's assembled a talent show, and he wants Trent to come down and film it.

Trent Harris In The Beaver Trilogy

The show is scheduled to come off on the 31st. Please, Trent, come down. I'm begging, I'm pleading. PS, I will be putting on my makeup at the open mortuary at 8:00 AM. You may want to get some shots.

Grooving Gary In The Beaver Trilogy

Jeez, let's see. How are we going to do this now?

Starlee Kine

And sure enough, the next shot we're at a mortuary, as if that makes any sense at all. The Beaver Kid sits with his hair clipped back away from his face. The local mortician applies eye shadow, mascara, rouge, and lipstick. I'm guessing, because she's the most qualified person in town to do it, but no one explains. The Kid seems different than he was in the parking lot, way more nervous.

Grooving Gary In The Beaver Trilogy

Well, Trent, I think I'll go get into my threads.

Starlee Kine

The mortician smiles encouragingly. Let's get you wiggy on, she says.

Mortician In The Beaver Trilogy

Let's get your wiggy on.

Grooving Gary In The Beaver Trilogy

Get my wig on.

Starlee Kine

And pretty soon he's in character, wearing a bulky leather jacket, tight black jeans, and a blond wig that hangs down to his waist. He's supposed to be Olivia Newton-John.

Grooving Gary In The Beaver Trilogy

My purse, Olivia. Well, I really don't know what to say now. I guess I ought to get down in a minute. And I'm off.

Starlee Kine

Watching all this, the thought doesn't occur to you that the kid's gay or closeted. And I don't think he in fact is. He's more like an overgrown boy dressing up for Halloween, doing the most outrageous thing he can think of. He can barely suppress the giggles as he zips into his knee-high boots. Again, here's Trent.

Trent Harris

You know, I grew up in a small town too, and I know what it's like to be on the outside. It's very difficult. There's an awful lot of pressure from the school, from the church, from your family, from everything to make you conform. And you just can't go around dressing up like Olivia Newton-John without people getting cranky.

Vice Principal In The Beaver Trilogy

For a decade Joan and Julie [? Kesser ?] have been singing before audiences throughout Beaver County and the state. They have performed on the Eugene Jelesnik Show.

Starlee Kine

The next thing you see is a man with a mustache standing on the stage of a school auditorium. He's the Beaver High School vice principal, who the kid has recruited to serve as the talent show MC.

Vice Principal In The Beaver Trilogy

Joan and Julie [? Kesser ?] will now sing "The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA."

Kessers In The Beaver Trilogy

[SINGING]

Starlee Kine

The whole thing is like this. There's a drill team, a ventriloquist act. It's all pretty much what you expect from a small town talent show until the Beaver Kid comes out.

Vice Principal In The Beaver Trilogy

Ladies and gentleman, Olivia Newton-Don.

Grooving Gary In The Beaver Trilogy

[MUSIC PLAYING] [SINGING]

Starlee Kine

It doesn't matter that he can't really sing, or that he looks nothing like Olivia Newton-John. Watching the kid perform is totally riveting. His eyes are closed, and his face looks pained. He's singing directly into the camera.

Grooving Gary In The Beaver Trilogy

[SINGING]

Starlee Kine

It goes on for a long time. It's so long and so raw that you worry. You feel like maybe you shouldn't be watching. It feels too personal. You have no idea what's going to happen next. And at the same time, you're aware he's orchestrated this whole elaborate event at 11:00 on a Saturday morning to a half-empty theater just so he can be up on stage at this moment and be put on TV. It's like watching someone finally get what they've always needed.

Soon enough, the screen fades to black. Then something happens I never would have seen coming. A new scene opens. A handheld camera shakily approaches a kid taking pictures in the middle of an empty parking lot.

Sean Penn In The Beaver Trilogy

Wow. Are you filming this?

Trent Harris In The Beaver Trilogy

Yeah.

Sean Penn In The Beaver Trilogy

I can't believe it. I can't believe it. I never been on a set before.

Starlee Kine

Everything's exactly the same. Except this time, instead of the Beaver Kid, it's Sean Penn. Sean Penn.

Sean Penn In The Beaver Trilogy

I'm lucky I came on. I'm an impersonator. I'll do a John Wayne.

Trent Harris In The Beaver Trilogy

All right, go ahead.

Sean Penn In The Beaver Trilogy

Well, I'll tell you out there in TV land, I just made extra, and I'm just tickled to death. I love hamming it up, you can tell.

Starlee Kine

When you watch the movie, there is no explanation for any of this. You have no idea why it's happening again, this time to one of the most famous actors in the world. But I can explain. Shortly after Trent shot the talent show, he moved out to Hollywood with dreams of making it big. But his first film was an unlikely vehicle to stardom. A virtually plotless single character dramatization of the documentary he'd already made. He wrote out a script and started looking for a leading man.

It was 1981. Sean Penn had just finished filming Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and within a year he'd be a full-fledged movie star. But when Trent found him, Sean Penn was just another unknown actor looking for work. Once again, Trent lucked out.

Trent Harris

Basically, I didn't have any money. I'm shooting this thing with a home video camera. You can't believe some of the people I auditioned for this, Nick Cage, Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards.

Starlee Kine

Really?

Trent Harris

These people all wanted to play this part. And somebody said, you ought to call this guy, Sean Penn, on the phone. I didn't know who he was. I made him an addition for the role. And he came down to the place I was at, and rather than have him read lines, he decided that what he wanted to do was just become the character. And that he would follow me around for for the rest of the day. So he became my cousin Larry from Idaho. And then he just followed me around that day. And I introduced him to people as my cousin from Idaho named Larry. And he acted the part out. And it was really kind of funny, because a year later people would come up to me and say, boy your cousin's really become a big star.

Mortician In The Beaver Trilogy

Let's get your wiggy on.

Sean Penn In The Beaver Trilogy

Let's get my wiggy on, and Olivia will just about be here. Hello, I really don't know quite what to say. I guess we ought to be going.

Starlee Kine

It's practically a shot for shot remake.

Sean Penn In The Beaver Trilogy

[MUSIC PLAYING] [SINGING]

Starlee Kine

The only difference between this version and the one with the real kid is the ending. After the concert, Sean Penn, whose character's name is Larry, goes home and calls up the director on the phone and asks him not to play the footage on TV. He's worried people will take it the wrong way. The director refuses. Sean Penn drops the phone and picks up a shotgun. He puts the barrel in his mouth and cocks the trigger. [PHONE RINGING] Then the phone rings.

Sean Penn In The Beaver Trilogy

Yes.

Carissa In The Beaver Trilogy

Hello, Larry? This is Carissa. Listen, I thought your performance at the talent show was really funny. I can hardly wait to see it on TV. Anyway, I'm having a party Saturday night. Would you like to come and act like Olivia?

Starlee Kine

Sean Penn puts on his Olivia wig, blinks away his tears, and starts singing into a hair brush. It all feels very melodramatic and pat and unbelievable, like a tacked on Hollywood ending. And then the screen goes black. The movie seems to be over. And then, a handheld camera, a parking lot, a kid taking pictures.

Crispin Glover In The Beaver Trilogy

What, why, are you filming this?

Trent Harris In The Beaver Trilogy

Yeah.

Crispin Glover In The Beaver Trilogy

Wow, oh gosh, I've been wanting to get on the tube so bad.

Starlee Kine

Everything's exactly the same. Except this time, instead of a young Sean Penn, it's a young Crispin Glover, Crispin Glover. That's right, the guy that played Michael J. Fox's dad in Back to the Future.

Crispin Glover In The Beaver Trilogy

Well, let's see here. Here's a little bit of the old John Wayne for you. Well, let me tell ya, something out there in TV land. I just made the tube, and it just tickles the heck right out of me.

Starlee Kine

The rest is the same too. There's Crispin in the mortuary.

Crispin Glover In The Beaver Trilogy

Guess I'd better get into my threads.

Starlee Kine

There's Crispin at the town talent show.

Crispin Glover In The Beaver Trilogy

[SINGING]

Starlee Kine

But while the first two versions of the story were basically made with a home video camera and looked it, this one looks like a real movie. It's shot on film. There's lighting and extras and actual sets. It also cost a lot more. Trent spent $50,000 on it. And, as is often the case in Hollywood, the big budget remake is not as good as the original. Trent adds a whole new backstory to make the Beaver Kid seem like an heroic outsider. People are constantly mocking him, sticking tacks on his chair, telling him he'll never make it onto TV. And the director is an oily, villainous, mustachioed type name Terrance. And just like in the Sean Penn version, Crispin pulls out a gun after the talent show and considers killing himself. He calls the director and begs him not to put the footage on TV. [PHONE RINGING]

Ken Butler In The Beaver Trilogy

Hello?

Crispin Glover In The Beaver Trilogy

Terrance, how ya pal? I hope you don't think I'm crazy for this, but I'm a little worried about that Olivia number. And I'd be willing to pay for your gas, and film and stuff if you just wouldn't put it on TV.

Ken Butler In The Beaver Trilogy

I put a lot of time and effort into this project. Look, people are going to love it. You look great. And besides, I got a deadline to meet. Would I lie to you?

Trent Harris

I emerge as a character in this series. And I guess my character is just kind of a jerk, for lack of a better word. He is very insensitive and very, sort of, just after a story and nothing else, and very exploitative.

Starlee Kine

When I asked Trent why he felt the need to add the phone call, and the gun, and exploitative director character, at first he says, it was just for dramatic effect. He tells me every movie needs a villain. He tells me reality doesn't have anything to do with anything. He tells me to shut up. And then, finally, an hour into our interview, he tells me this.

Trent Harris

What happened? I did get a phone call. I did get a phone call after I'd been in Beaver. And the phone call said, listen I've been thinking about that, maybe you shouldn't put it on TV. And I remember saying, oh, don't worry about it. It's going to be fine. And maybe I wasn't as sensitive as I should have been or could have been. Not too long after that, I found out that he'd been shot.

Starlee Kine

Trent called the hospital, and was told the Beaver Kid had an accident with a gun. The kid was OK though, able to talk on the phone.

Trent Harris

And then he just kept apologizing to me, which was kind of very confusing. Very sorry that he'd put me through what he was putting me through. Which seemed kind of odd at the time, because I felt like I should be apologizing to him. I guess I felt like maybe I'd pushed him a little bit too much.

Starlee Kine

The Beaver Kid declined my request for an interview. After all that, Trent quit his TV job, never airing his footage of the talent show, and drove to Hollywood where he immediately started working on the Sean Penn version of the story. Still thinking about how he'd originally ignored the kid's request not to broadcast the footage and how the kid ended up in the hospital.

Starlee Kine

Do you connect the two things together?

Trent Harris

I mean, in my mind, I connect them together. I don't know whether it's true or not, but in my mind I connect it together. Again, I'm very, very reluctant to talk about what is going on in his mind or to speculate that way. I don't think it's fair.

Starlee Kine

I mean, but it seems more about you though. It seems more about--

Trent Harris

If you're asking me, and I think you're trying to, if I feel guilty about anything that has happened? The answer to that is yes. Of course, I do feel guilty about things. I feel guilty about putting myself and my needs above other people's needs, above his needs. I wasn't appreciative of that, and sensitive of that. And for that, I've always felt guilty. And there you have it. That's why I keep making this damn thing over and over again. Now can we quit?

Starlee Kine

You know, you're the one who made these movies. You set yourself up for this whole chain of events here. So then, did you feel better after?

Trent Harris

Right now, I feel terrible. It's getting worse.

Starlee Kine

Good, I think we're having a breakthrough here.

Crispin Glover In The Beaver Trilogy

How about a cup to go?

Starlee Kine

The third version of the story, like the Sean Penn version, has a happy ending. Crispin Glover wears his Olivia Newton-John outfit out in public. He doesn't care what people think anymore, and then he literally drives off into the sunset. [MOTORCYCLE REVVING AND MUSIC PLAYING]

The screen fades to black. When I saw this in the theater, everyone in the audience hesitated for a minute before standing up. We didn't know who might walk out onto that parking lot next.

What's so crazy about Trent spending years making the exact same movie over and over, is not what he added to the film each time, but what he kept the same. Trent could've shot anywhere in the world, anything he wanted, but instead he kept coming back to the same drab parking lot. Details that would seem totally random to anyone watching, he repeats.

Like any obsession, it's always the most mundane things you can't shake. So what you end up with is a series of movies that only make sense to the person who made them. The same story, over and over, with inexplicably happy endings thrown on. If I hadn't talked to Trent, I still would've loved these movies, but I would have had no idea what they were about. But that's OK. Because they weren't meant for us anyway.

After Trent finished the last version of the film in 1985, he did the same thing that he'd done with the first two, absolutely nothing. 13 years later, he came across all three of them in his closet and hooked them together onto one reel for the first time. He screened it at a local theater in Utah. One thing led to another, and he was invited to screen it at the Sundance Film Festival. For the first time in 22 years, Trent had to find the Beaver Kid. He had a friend track him down to invite him to Sundance.

Trent Harris

So I mean, you've got to imagine this. You've got to take this into perspective. Is that he doesn't know. This happens in 1979 and in 2001 he gets a phone call that says this is going to play at the Sundance Film Festival. Well, just before the show starts, the tickets haven't been picked up. What happens is that we show the movie. It's a huge screening. There are 1,400 people there.

And after the screening, there's a bunch of people run up to the stage and ask more questions, stuff like that. All of a sudden, out of this sea of faces, one emerges. And he says, you probably don't remember me. And I immediately recognized who he was. And I grabbed him and dragged him out the side door into a snow drift.

There was a lot of, huh, well, I mean, what have you-- well, I mean, wow-- That was really something. I can't believe. And then I'd say something like, yeah, I mean, wow, I tried to find you, but I didn't know where you were. And look at all this snow, and here comes a bunch of people. And then he'd say, oh my gosh, and I still have that car. And oh, you must think I'm some sort or a nut. And what in the heck is going on? Where all these people coming from? Do they think I'm some sort of a nut? Ans I said, No, no, everybody loves you, it's great. I mean, it was that kind of a conversation.

And then we're mobbed. All of the sudden, there's 50 people standing around taking pictures and asking for his autograph. He doen't know. He just starts signing autographs, and then kind of slipped right into it as if he'd been doing it for years.

After the screening, I took him to the big Sundance party at the end of the festival. There is a huge, huge party under a big tent. The room's filled with movie stars and all kinds of glamorous people drinking champagne and having a heck of time. And nobody cared about the movie stars. They were all around him. They're asking him questions and getting his autograph. And beautiful women hanging on his arm and running off to get him a glass of beer. It was incredible. It was great. Literally, he was the biggest star in the room.

Starlee Kine

So was it a relief?

Trent Harris

It was a tremendous relief for me.

Starlee Kine

Trent kept remaking the same film because he wanted it to come out right. He wanted to give the kid a happy ending. And somehow, the plan worked. The Beaver Kid wanted to be a star. 22 years passed, and in the end, he was. And what happened in between doesn't have to make sense.

Ira Glass

Starlee Kine. Trent Harris's Beaver Trilogy is not in distribution. It's not available in stores. It will not be coming to a theater near you. And maybe it's not over yet.

Trent Harris

He came up with an idea. He said, hey we ought to do part four. He had an idea, and I said, well, what's your idea? And he says, "Well, OK, imagine this. We're out on the sagebrush, nothing around except a long, long, dirt road. And you hear the music begin to creep up. And then over the horizon comes my car, in a cloud of dust, and I come. And I whip right up in front of the camera, and I screech to a halt. And as the dust clears, I lean out the window in my wig and I say, 'I ain't done yet.'" So we might do it this summer.

Starlee Kine

You might?

Trent Harris

Of course I will. What? You have to film that. That sounds great.

Ira Glass

Coming up, sticking around after the break, is that a heroic act? A [? can do ?], starring the Montgomery Bus Boycott. We are pro and con-- well, mostly con actually. When we return in a minute. From Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. Marriage As Rerun.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. If you're just tuning in today, we are talking about reruns, personal reruns. We've arrive at Act 2 of our program. Act Two, Marriage As Rerun. And let us begin this act with this scene of people stuck in personal reruns. A scene, I would bet, that you have probably been in yourself at one point or another.

Carmen and Candido were out just the other night with a friend. And Carmen started telling a story about her nephew, Nikko.

Carmen

And as soon as I say, well, when Nikko was three years old, one Sunday. Candido rolls his eyes.

Candido

See, the problem is, that I heard this story like 1,000 times. And I can't sit through it again. Carmen tells the story the exact same way all the time.

Carmen

Because it's very funny.

Candido

She should embellish it for me.

Ira Glass

Now, Candido, are there stories that you tell over and over?

Candido

No.

Carmen

That's not true.

Candido

I don't.

Carmen

That's so not true.

Ira Glass

Yes friends, it is a fact of married life, one that is almost never discussed, that being married, being in any couple for more than one night, I would argue, means hearing the same stories over and over from your partner, possibly for the rest of your life. But have you noticed that of all the stories that could get told in front of each other, only certain stories do get told? Well, to understand the taxonomy of this, the ins and outs of this phenomenon, I spoke with three couples.

We begin with Carmen and Candido. There is a story that he tells about the day that he got hurt on the subway and strangers came to his aid. They live in New York City. And this story comes up in any conversation where it might be necessary to prove the point that New Yorkers are not cold hearted but, in fact, helpful and kind to each other. There are the stories that she tells about her nephew Nikko, which come up on when the topic of kids doing adorable things enters a conversation with her friends, usually with friends who have kids. And then there's the graduation story.

Candido

Whenever they're talking about embarrassing moments, I guess this is the one that gets told a lot.

Carmen

It comes up. Our mother's stories.

Candido

Our mother's story.

Carmen

So should I tell my graduation story? Candido rolled his eyes.

Ira Glass

What happens in this story? Yeah, tell me the story.

Carmen

OK, my mother was a teacher. She's now a principal. And she has that personality. Which is great. Very loving but very-- she's an Aries.

Candido

Aggressive--

Carmen

So I went to Catholic school, and when I was graduating from eighth grade, we had our our graduation in the church, in the school's church. And [INAUDIBLE] of those Instamatic Kodak cameras. And she didn't advance the film when my name was called. And I went up there, and I received my diploma, and she didn't get a shot of that. So she goes, go back up there. I was like, mom, you are not making me go back up there.

Ira Glass

Oh my God.

Carmen

Yeah, completely. In the church, in front of everybody, go back up there right now. I was like, mommy, they're calling other people. And she said, "Father Bradley!" to the priest who was giving the diplomas out.

Ira Glass

Wait, she calls out from the audience?

Carmen

Well, she left her seat, and went up toward the altar. She's by the altar. And she goes, "Father Bradley, just hold on. Go back up there. Go back up there right now." Father Bradley posed, and she took the picture. And she goes, "OK, thank you. Oh, my baby!" And hugging me. Everybody is staring at me. And what I love about that moment, when I think about it, is that my mom didn't care what other people thought.

Candido

Exactly.

Catherine Hodgman

I've probably heard this story 20 or 25 times.

(SUBJECT) JOHN HODGMAN I would guess that she's probably heard it six to eight times.

Catherine Hodgman

It seems like a lot.

(SUBJECT) JOHN HODGMAN I think she thinks it's pretty funny.

Ira Glass

This is our second couple, John and Catherine, who've known each other since high school. The story in question happened when they were both 21, both briefly living in England. It's a drinking story to be told while drinking about a night of drinking. John was the one who was drunk in the story. He was young. He was working lousy jobs. He was absolutely bored. So there was a lot of drinking in his life.

(SUBJECT) JOHN HODGMAN It was around this time that I also started doing some very low-key shoplifting. And I would take like a pack of gum, or like an onion. And this was very thrilling to me.

So one night John's friend Charles and another friend suggested they break into the London Zoo. Which at that time turned out to be surprisingly easy to do. They simply hopped over a low iron wrought fence. Once inside, they spotted a pool, with penguins sleeping all around it, right there behind a wall so low that you just step over it.

(SUBJECT) JOHN HODGMAN Yeah, it was exciting, because I'd always liked penguins. I've now learned that they are kind of shifty and mean and also harbingers of doom. I simply stepped over the wall, and I walked down and walked up to a sleeping penguin. Apparently they are diurnal creatures, and they sleep at night. And this one was not very happy about being woken up, because I petted him a little, and he bit me on the finger. It was not a major wound, but it was a token of bad things to come.

Ira Glass

I have to say, as a symbolic moment, it's a good one. Because something cute has suddenly become deeply un-cute.

(SUBJECT) JOHN HODGMAN You find penguins cute?

Ira Glass

What are you talking about? Everyone finds penguins cute.

(SUBJECT) JOHN HODGMAN I look at them differently now.

Ira Glass

It would be like a teddy bear biting you or something.

(SUBJECT) JOHN HODGMAN Yeah, teddy bears are actually stuffed animals. But as an expert on penguin behavior, you're right, it is very unusual.

What follows turns out to be one of those sprawling stories that takes 45 minutes to tell. So I will choose just a few highlights for you here. There is the run-in with the police. No story like this is complete without the run-in with the police. John is the only one caught. He's questioned. He's taken to jail. He does not tell them his real name. He does not rat out his friends. He tries to act tough with the cops.

(SUBJECT) JOHN HODGMAN They were all laughing at me and saying, what were you doing? Are you Marlin Perkins or something? And they said, "OK, empty your pockets." Now, I had been smart in a way that I haven't been in a long time. Before we went to the zoo, I decided, somewhat presciently, that it would be a good idea for me to not have any identification with me. So I didn't bring my wallet or my keys or my ID.

But I did have an onion in my pocket. Which really kind of stopped everyone for a very long moment. It was the only thing that I had. And they said, "What is that for?" And I said, "To feed the animals?" And they seemed to enjoy that. And I kind of thought that this couldn't go on for much longer. But they decided to put me in a cell for a while.

An on and on, you get the idea. What's strikingly fascinating about hearing his wife, Catherine, tell this same story is that after hearing it at least 20 times-- Well, you'll hear.

Catherine Hodgman

They had a good time for a while, and then, at some point, they were in the pig pen. And I don't know, they knew somehow that the police were there. Isn't funny that I am not really sure how this transpired?

Ira Glass

Do what animal bit John?

Catherine Hodgman

A pig.

Ira Glass

OK, that's not right.

Catherine Hodgman

You're kidding?

Ira Glass

Nope, it's not a pig.

Catherine Hodgman

I thought he was in the pig pen. And there's this whole thing where he's like, the pig is licking my ear.

Ira Glass

Nope. Not the pig.

Catherine Hodgman

Was the pig licking Charles's ear?

Ira Glass

You barely have this story. You barely know this story.

Catherine Hodgman

I know. I do barely know this story. Do you think that I barely listen? Maybe I don't listen any more?

Ira Glass

The part that she actually does remember every time she tells it is the part where he's in jail. She says it brings out some sort of maternal feeling in her. She just can't stand the thought of him going through that. What they're both clear on is why this is the story that John has told over and over for more than a decade. Here is John explaining.

(SUBJECT) JOHN HODGMAN I think that the story, it's a version of myself that seems a little reckless, adventurous, quick-witted, but also ultimately humiliated by my own overreach.

Ira Glass

Have you noticed that there's certain people that all the stories they tell, they are triumphant, and then other people, all the stories that they tell about themselves, they are humiliated.

(SUBJECT) JOHN HODGMAN See, I think a good drinking story contains both. Both that heroic aspect and that completely de-clothed, humiliated, embarrassed aspect as well.

Ira Glass

When I was talking to him about it, I asked him, why is this the story that gets told over and over? And he said, that a really good story like this should be something where the person telling the story both appears as a hero and then as an idiotic fool.

Catherine Hodgman

[LAUGHTER] Well, where's the hero part?

Ira Glass

Which brings us to our last couple, Robert and Tamar. They also have a story that gets repeated in their house that has been the source of a small difference in interpretation between them. It's a story they both tell. Though him more than her, you get feeling. They don't tell the story the same way. And we will start with her version of the story.

Tamar Lewin

The first thing you need to know about this story is that I am totally celebrity blind, just completely. So much of my life with Robert has been wandering around New York and him saying, oh, look you were sitting next to Candice Bergen. And I'd say, no I wasn't. And he's always right, and I'm always wrong. So I'm really pleased one day. I'm out all by myself in the world, and I'm on the East Side, and I'm walking down Madison Avenue. And I see someone, and I know-- me the celebrity blind person-- I know absolutely for sure, for sure that this person across the street is Jackie Kennedy. And not only is it Jackie Kennedy, but she's looking at me. And she has her hand up when I smile at her.

Ira Glass

OK, let's stop that right there. Before she gets too far, here is Robert's interpretation of the same event. Their interviews were recorded separately.

Robert Krulwich

It's a beautiful, beautiful fall day. And we're walking down Fifth Avenue. The Central Park is on our right. I just picture this very, very precisely. And we're walking along, and Tamar is distracted. She looks over her left shoulder, and she goes [SOUND OF SURPISE]. There I see, across the street, Jackie Onassis, President Kennedy's wife, and she's waving, very modestly, at Tamar.

Ira Glass

You've probably noticed the key differences already. He says that they're together. She says that she's alone. He says, next to Central Park. She says, Madison Avenue. But once she spots Jackie O, the stories fly in tandem for a while.

Tamar Lewin

She has her hand when I smile at her, and she waves at me.

Robert Krulwich

And I thought, oh my God. I didn't know that they knew each other, whatever. And I'm looking at Tamar, and Tamar's looking at Jackie Onassis.

Tamar Lewin

And I'm so excited. And I wave back sort of tentatively, but beaming, beaming, beaming. And she waves back more so. I then wave back with my whole, whole heart.

Robert Krulwich

So I'm just staring at this in wonder. And then Jackie raises her hand even more excitedly and starts sort of moving it back and forth and back and forth.

Tamar Lewin

And I'm waving, and beaming, and I'm so happy and proud.

Robert Krulwich

And in that moment, a cab pulls up alongside Jackie Onassis. And what Jackie Onassis had actually been doing is just waving for a cab. And my wife, by mistake, somehow thought that Jackie was waving at her and is feeling really stupid.

Tamar Lewin

And so I'm really, pretty humiliated.

Robert Krulwich

As am I.

Tamar Lewin

Because many people had been looking at Jackie Kennedy and many people had been looking at me making a fool of myself, waving, waving, waving, waving.

Robert Krulwich

And so we laugh about it, and we head downtown.

Ira Glass

So we laugh about it, and we head downtown. Now that is where his version of the story ends, a moment of love, a moment of togetherness. Tamar's version of the story continues. In her version, she comes home. Remember, she experienced the whole thing alone in her version. She comes home, and she tells Robert what happened to her. Weeks later, in her version, they are at somebody's house for dinner, and Robert just launches into his version of the story, the version that you just heard.

Tamar Lewin

As we leave that house, I say, you know Robert, you weren't there. And he said, "No. But I remember it, I can picture it, I can see it so clearly." And I say, "But you weren't there."

Robert Krulwich

She says that I wasn't there. Which is astonishing to me. I mean, this is like I can feel this on my skin. I have told this story with such vividness because I remember it so vividly. I just remember things. Like things, like the way the sun was catching leaves. I remember turning around. I remember the intake of breath and the surprise. I remember all the little things going on in my mind . How do they know each other? Oh my God. She said, I wasn't there. I was never there. But she told it to me, and I, just simply, sort of like Ghengis Khan or Alexander the Great I occupied it. Like it was real estate that I wanted to be part of, so I just marched in and became part of it.

Ira Glass

Do you believe her, that you weren't in it?

Robert Krulwich

Yeah. Yeah. Because I live, as all married people do, in a courthouse. And the jury, upon deliberating about this, said, this particular witness has proven over the years a complete-- and she is very, very believable. A credible witness has testified. And you sir? Over the years, we have formed our own opinions about you. Judgment to the wife.

Tamar Lewin

So now it's become a shared story.

Ira Glass

Wait, wait, and he'll tell it, and in his version, he's in the story?

Tamar Lewin

In this version he has his view of what happened, but he says, but actually Tamar says I wasn't there.

Ira Glass

Well thank you to all of our couple's, Carmen Rivera and Candido Tirado, John and Catherine Hodgman, and finally Tamar Lewin and Robert Krulwich.

Ira Glass

Robert?

Robert Krulwich

Yeah.

Ira Glass

If the story about Jackie Kennedy is true, you be able to tell me what she was wearing.

Robert Krulwich

Yeah, oh yeah. She was wearing a suit. She's wearing a suit, it had white buttons, and it had a collar, and it was a skirt, and I couldn't see her feet. But I remember that she had white buttons. You know where the buttons are attached to the garment, the stitching was black.

Ira Glass

OK, you were too far away to see that.

Robert Krulwich

Yeah, exactly. I never stopped to wonder about the zoom lens that I apparently had handy at that time.

[MUSIC - "FIVE TIMES OUT OF A HUNDRED" BY HOT HOT HEAT]

Act Three. Reruns At The Back Of The Bus.

Ira Glass

Act 3, Reruns At The Back Of The Bus. But we are a nation that keeps re-running for ourselves a certain story about ourselves and about Rosa Parks. Not only ago there was even a small bit of controversy when the movie Barbershop chose to depart from the official fable that we usually tell ourselves. Well, Sarah Vowell has been watching the trend carefully wherever it appears.

Sarah Vowell

According to Reuters, on January 20, 2001 in Washington DC, the special guest at the Florida State inaugural ball was introduced by the country singer Larry Gatlin. He said, in France it was Joan of Arc, in the Crimea it was Florence Nightingale, in the deep South there was Rosa Parks, in India there was Mother Teresa, and in Florida there was Katherine Harris. I leave it to my Indian, Crimean, and French colleagues to determine how the Florida Secretary of State is or is not similar to Teresa, Florence, or Saint Joan.

As for Rosa Parks, Katherine Harris can get in line. Because people around here can't stop comparing themselves to Parks. To wit, the Mayor of Friendship Heights Maryland has proposed an outdoor smoking ban because, according to the Washington Post, citizens with asthma or other illnesses cannot have full access to areas where smokers are doing their evil deed. The mayor compares this horrific possibility to Rosa Parks being sent to the back of the bus.

A California dairy farmer, protesting the government's milk pricing system, poured milk down a drain in front of TV cameras claiming that he had to take a stand just like Rosa Parks had to take a stand. A street performer in Saint Augustine, Florida is challenging a city ordinance that bans him from doing his act on the town's historic Saint George Street. The performers lawyer told the Florida Times-Union, telling these people they can exercise their first amendment rights somewhere other than on Saint George is like telling Rosa Parks that she has to sit in the back of the bus. Which is, coincidentally, also the argument of another Florida lawyer. This one representing adult dancers contesting Tampa's ordinance outlawing lap dancing.

I would also like to mention the rocker, marksman, and conservative activist Ted Nugent who, in his autobiography, God, Guns, and Rock and Roll, refers to himself as Rosa Parks with a loud guitar. Which is so inaccurate. Everyone knows he's more like Mary Matalin with a fancy deer rifle.

Call me picky, but breathing secondhand smoke, being subject to unfair dairy pricing, and not being able to mime or lap dance, though they are all tragic, tragic injustices, are not quite as bad as the systematic segregation of public transportation based on skin color.

And while fighting for your right to lap dance and mime, and breathe just the regular pollution and not the cigarette smokers, is a very fine, very American idea, it is not quite as brave as being a middle-aged black woman in Alabama in 1955 telling a white man she's not giving him her seat despite the fact that the law requires her to do so. And oh, by the way, in the process, she gets arrested. And then sparks the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which is the seed of the Civil Rights Movement as we know it. The Bus Boycotters not only introduced a 26-year-old pastor by the name of Martin Luther King junior into national public life, but after many months of car pools, walking, and court fights against bus segregation, got the separate-but-equal doctrine declared illegal once and for all.

It's not just the people on the right, like Katherine Harris and Ted Nugent, who seem especially silly being likened to Parks. I first cringed at this analogy trend at the lefty Ralph Nader's October 2000 campaign rally in Madison Square Garden. Ever sit in a coliseum full of people who think they're heroes? I was surrounded by thousands of well meaning well fed white kids who loved it when the filmmaker Michael Moore told them they should, like Rosa Parks, stand up to power.

Michael Moore

: What if Rosa Parks had said to herself, I'm the only person on this bus, I can't win? I'm afraid.

Sarah Vowell

By which I think he meant, vote for Nader so he could qualify for federal matching funds. I think I'm a fine enough person. By the very next morning I was having people over for waffles. But I hope I'm not being falsely modest by pointing out that I'm no Harriet Tubman and I'm certainly no Rosa Parks. As far as I'm concerned, about the only person in recent memory who has an unimpeachable right to compare himself to Parks is that Chinese student who stared down those tanks in Tiananmen Square.

I was reminded of those Naderites watching a rerun of the sitcom Sports Night on Comedy Central. Dan, a television sportscaster played by Josh Charles, has been ordered by his network to make an on-air apology to viewers because he said in a magazine interview that he supports the legalization of marijuana. He stands by his opinion and balks at apologizing. His boss, Isaac, played by Robert Guillaume, agrees but tells him to do it anyway.

Robert Guillaume In Sports Night

Because this is television and this is how it's done.

Josh Charles In Sports Night

Yeah, well, sitting in the back of the bus was how it was done until a 42-year-old lady moved up front. I'm not very impressed with how things are done, Isaac.

Sarah Vowell

A few minutes later Isaac looks Dan in the eye and tells him--

Robert Guillaume In Sports Night

Danny, you know I love you, don't you?

Josh Charles In Sports Night

Yeah.

Robert Guillaume In Sports Night

And because I love you, I can say this. No rich young white guy has ever gotten anywhere with me comparing himself to Rosa Parks. Got it?

Josh Charles In Sports Night

Yes, sir.

Robert Guillaume In Sports Night

Good.

Sarah Vowell

Finally, the voice of reason. Which, of course, was heard on a canceled network TV series airing on cable. Analogies give order to the world and solidarity. Pointing out how one person is like another is reassuring, less lonely. Maybe those who would compare their personal inconveniences to the epic struggles of history are just looking for company. And who wouldn't want to be in the company of Rosa Parks. On the other hand, perhaps people who compare themselves to Rosa Parks are simply arrogant, pampered nincompoops with delusions of grandeur who couldn't tell the difference between a paper cut and decapitation.

In defense of Ted Nugent, the street performer, the mayor, the dairy farmer, the lap dancers, the Naderites, and a fictional sportscaster, I will point out that Katherine Harris is the only person on my list of people lamely compared to a civil rights icon who, at the very moment she was being compared to a civil rights icon, was actually being sued for massive voter disenfranchisement of people of color during the presidential election by the NAACP.

[MUSIC - "ROSA PARKS" BY OUTKAST]

Ira Glass

Sarah Vowell is the author of the book, The Partly Cloudy Patriot, where her thoughts about Rosa Parks appear.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program is produced today by Jonathan Goldstein and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Diane Cook, Wendy Dorr, David Kastenbaum, and Starlee Kine. Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Music help from Agoraphone. Special thanks today to Jeffrey Brown, author of the comic book Clumsy. Thanks to Jamie York and Doug Stone. The song, Could Be Worse had lyrics by Sarah Vowell and music by They Might Be Giants and featured Robin Goldwasser. It is not collected on the new They Might Be Giants CD-DVD set, Venue Songs.

Our website, where you can get the free weekly podcasts, it's free, of our program. Where we do your Christmas shopping, send our brand new greatest hits double CD set, Stories Of Hope And Fear to someone you love-- www.thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Mr. Torey Malatia. He's been working on his John Wayne imitation, waiting for his big break, really. Here, listen.

Crispin Glover In The Beaver Trilogy

Well, let me tell you, something out there in TV land, I just made the tube, and it just tickles the heck right out of me.

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life

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