Transcript

510:

Fiasco!
Transcript

Originally aired 11.01.2013

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Prologue.

Boy

From PRI, Public Radio International.

Woman

From PRI, Public Radio International.

Man

From PRI, Public Radio International.

Woman

Public Radio--

Man

Public--

Woman

Radio International.

Man

--Radio International.

Woman

One more time.

Ira Glass

What could be more American than the person who sees something they've never done before, dreams they could do it, goes after that dream? Well, let's begin today with a woman who dreams of directing a play in the small town where she lives, a college town somewhere below the Mason-Dixon line in the hills of Appalachia, a town which will remain, for our purposes today, unnamed.

Jack Hitt

I don't think she'd ever directed. And she claimed to have acted. And it was never really quite clear just what her credentials were. But she had managed to convince the local theater department of this college that she should direct a production of Peter Pan.

Ira Glass

When he was in the 10th grade in 1973, Jack Hitt saw her production. And like everybody else in town, he heard about it for weeks beforehand.

Jack Hitt

Slowly but surely, you began to hear sort of rumors about this production. For example, I know that they had spent a lot of money renting these flying apparatuses out of New York. And apparently, there's, like, one company and a handful of these apparatuses. So to get them was a major coup.

Ira Glass

This is a story not just of a mediocre play or a terrible play. When it comes right down to it, it's not even a story about a play. This is a story about a fiasco and about what makes a fiasco. And one ingredient of many fiascoes is that great, massive, heart-wrenching chaos and failure are more likely to occur when great ambition has come into play, when plans are big, expectations great, hopes at their highest.

Jack Hitt

And what you have to understand is that everybody in this sort of community understood that there was certainly a sort of air of everyone reaching beyond their own grasp. Every actor was in a role that was just a little too big for them, every aspect of the set and the crew.

And rumors had cooked around. There was this huge crew. There were lots of things being painted.

Ira Glass

See, but this, in fact, is one of the criteria for greatness, that everyone is just about to reach just beyond their grasp, because that is when greatness can occur.

Jack Hitt

That's right. That's right. And maybe greatness could have occurred.

Ira Glass

Well, today on our program, what happens when greatness does not occur. What happens, in fact, when fumble leads to error leads to mishap, and before you know it, you have left the realm of ordinary mistake and chaos, and you have entered into the more ethereal, specialized realm of fiasco. Today's show, Fiascoes, a philosophical inquiry-- perhaps the first ever, as far as we know-- into what makes a fiasco, what takes our ordinary lives the extra distance into fiasco.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program in four acts. Act One, Opening Night. Act Two, a fiasco involving a village, marauding Visigoths, a 1,9000-pound brass cauldron, and some oil. Don't even ask. Act Three, Squirrel Cop, in which a bushy-tailed visitor threatens to take down two police officers, a married couple, a couch, and a house. Act Four, Fiascoes as a Force for Good in this World.

There is much, much to learn about fiascoes in this hour. Stay with us.

Act One. Opening Night.

Ira Glass

We begin our show with this true fable of Peter Pan in Act One, Opening Night.

Jack Hitt

Opening night comes, and, well, almost everybody in the area, in the 10-mile radius of this theater, knows somebody in this production. So the place is pretty much packed. And I don't know if you remember the opening moment of Peter Pan, but it's the three little kids sleeping in their bed. And Peter Pan comes flying in the window.

And in this particular production, there's a big bed with all the three kids in it. And off to the left, I remember, is a big, huge wardrobe. And there's a large window there, and a little bureau. And Peter Pan comes in and has the little speech where he says, "Anybody can fly. Why, with just a little magic dust, one can fly." And Peter Pan sprinkles this magic dust in the air.

And sure enough, the kids suddenly just lurch into the air. And it becomes clear right away that the people that they've hired to run these flying apparatuses really aren't quite clear on how they actually work. So instead of the kids sailing gracefully to and fro, they hang in the air like puppets, just dangling there and getting jerked up an inch or two or back and forth.

Ira Glass

And then sometimes they're just stationary?

Jack Hitt

Yeah. Just hanging there like a spider.

And then several of them start to circumscribe these circles in the air, where it's clear that the people running the machines have just set them off on these oval courses that spiral farther and farther out. And if you're sitting in the audience, there was clearly a sense of fear on the faces of these people.

Ira Glass

Of the actors?

Jack Hitt

The actors. The actors actually-- you could sense their lack of confidence, shall we say, in the people running the machines in the back.

Ira Glass

Wait, wait. And the audience reaction to this point is just-- are they laughing?

Jack Hitt

No one is laughing. This is one of the great things about audiences, especially in a live theater production, is that they're very forgiving. They want the show to work. And so everyone is gripping their chair a little tightly. We feel for them. They're up there. They're embarrassing themselves for us.

Ira Glass

We identify with them. We become them.

Jack Hitt

And so the audience, I think, was very forgiving and very understanding of this moment. But there was one moment in this first opening scene that put the audience on notice. And that's when, as the kids are jerking up and down and swinging back and forth and going around in these ovals, at one point, the littlest one, the little boy, is being flung around a little too hard.

Ira Glass

Well, he has the least mass to resist whatever the machinery is doing to him.

Jack Hitt

Right.

Ira Glass

Mm-hm. OK. So, and?

Jack Hitt

And so he's flying around in this circle. And the audience sees this coming. And there's a real sense of pain and gripping of the chair and white knuckle-ness as the kid suddenly does just an enormous splat into the wardrobe. And it's clear that he's hurt, and he comes off of it a little dazed. Then, of course, he's jerked up in the air a little bit, and often a little too high, so that he's suddenly in the workings. He left the stage itself. He's now up there with the lights. Then, all of a sudden he would just plummet back down to the stage and be caught up just before he hit the floor.

It was hard to watch, because, as you can tell, it's an incredibly funny moment, but like I say, the audience was still in this very forgiving mode. And no one said a word. We just all sat there, holding our breath. And there's that weird tension of being in the audience, thinking, oh, oh my goodness. They have gotten off to a very bad start. Oh, this is not good. And we feel for them.

Ira Glass

May I just interrupt for just a moment to just say, now at this point-- because after all, we are not just joined here together on the radio, you and I today, to laugh at the foibles of the unfortunate. No, no. We're here to enumerate the qualities of a fiasco. At this point, we are not yet in the territory of fiasco.

Jack Hitt

No. No, because, like I say, audiences are forgiving. One or two mistakes, even big ones like this, they are going to let that ride.

Ira Glass

Yes, they are.

Jack Hitt

We did. We did. We were very good.

Ira Glass

So we are not yet at fiasco. We are at a normal level of mishap.

Jack Hitt

Right. What happens immediately after this, they disappear to Never Never Land. And if you remember, the stage goes dark. And then when the lights come up, there's Captain Hook. And he's giving his first opening soliloquy about how evil he is and what a menace he is and how he harms people and hates children. It's all that good stuff.

And so Captain Hook is out there, and he looks great. He's got one of those big, old, fat hats and this great hook and these wild-looking boots and everything.

Ira Glass

And people are feeling more confident. Something's happening.

Jack Hitt

It's a good sign. It's a good sign. And he's in charge. This guy, he's got a bad mustache, and he is certainly evil. And the audience is totally in his pocket. He's speaking away and gesturing wildly and going on and on about how bad he is.

And then at a certain point, as he gestures, his hook and the entire black casing up to his elbow flings off of his hand and flies into the audience and punches an old lady in the gut.

Ira Glass

He is bad.

Jack Hitt

He is very bad. He had the worst ad lib I've ever heard. I mean, what do you say at that point? Because, of course, his hand is now nakedly exposed to the audience.

Ira Glass

A tough moment for any actor.

Jack Hitt

Very, very hard.

Ira Glass

If the very premise of your character is that you have a hook, your name is Captain Hook, literally all that's going to happen for the rest of the show is people are going to refer to you by that hook. Your entire motivation as a character is the fact that your arm was eaten off by an alligator and that you have to have a hook.

Jack Hitt

The entire plot stems from that fact.

Ira Glass

Right. And now, suddenly, you have no hook.

Jack Hitt

In fact, you have five fingers on a hand.

Ira Glass

As if a miracle by the Lord.

Jack Hitt

Captain Hook said, "You know, they just don't make those hooks like they used to." That was actually the ad lib. I will never forget it. Then the lights come up, and we are in Never Never Land.

Ira Glass

In Act Two.

Jack Hitt

Yeah, this is Act Two. And Captain Hook might have stood in front of the set, but you didn't really see it, because he spoke from shadow. And now the lights come up. And this is supposed to be a very dramatic moment.

The rumors of all this crew and the painting and everything that was going on and all this construction all worked towards this one moment, because when the lights came up, here was Never Never Land, this sort of psychedelic set. There were papier-mache mushrooms everywhere of different sizes. It was absolutely wonderful and surreal.

And there's nobody there. And then from the upper rafters of stage right, suddenly the kids and Peter Pan appear.

Ira Glass

Flying.

Jack Hitt

Flying. They're flying. And their landing occurs rather rapidly, at an angle of about 45 degrees to the stage. They come down basically like, I don't know, lead sinkers on a line, and crash to the floor, and then are just dragged across the floor like mops and wipe out all of the mushrooms.

Ira Glass

And so now, have we arrived at a turning point in our fiasco?

Jack Hitt

Yeah. Yeah, it's clear now that the audience is giving way. Something has been lost. Some sense of decorum, that little bit of forgiveness that the audience has for the actors--

Ira Glass

And empathy.

Jack Hitt

--and empathy. It's beginning to dissipate. Well, there was a split in the audience. The younger people, who were the least forgiving, they started to go first. OK, so the high school students, a couple of college students, maybe, they started to laugh out loud.

And I'll be honest, Ira, I might have been one of those first people to laugh. I was in the 10th grade. It was hard to not laugh at this thing. But then, whatever restraint that the audience had, it just evaporated at this point, because there were a number of things that happened in quick succession that just made it impossible to hold any sense of decorum.

Ira Glass

Which are?

Jack Hitt

For example, Tinker Bell appears for the first time around this moment. And Tinker Bell is essentially a light bulb on an extension cord.

Ira Glass

What?

Jack Hitt

Yeah. And this was the director's idea of being raw, being very modern. Tinker Bell was just going to be this literal light bulb, dangling from an extension cord.

Ira Glass

Whereas, in other productions, what they'll do is that someone will shine a light.

Jack Hitt

Shine a light, or they'll just--

Ira Glass

A beam of focused light. And then that pinprick of light is supposed to be Tinker Bell.

Jack Hitt

That's right, or something like that, or nothing at all, and people just address the invisible sprite. Well, that did not happen in this case. This bulb comes just dangling down and sort of hangs around this naked--

Ira Glass

A bare light bulb?

Jack Hitt

--white bulb just hangs around. And people are talking to it. And I think Tinker Bell must have had an appearance in the first act. But it was somewhere in here that people just started laughing at this.

Then another thing that happened was, later on in this scene, if you remember, Wendy gets trapped on an island. And she spots a kite that's flying by. And she's supposed to grab it and attach it to her back and fly off. Well, of course, the kite is attached to the flying apparatus line. And it gets closer and closer to her. She's standing on this little papier-mache hill.

But the flying apparatus people can't quite get it close enough to her to reach. So she has to step out into the waters that she's just told us is filled with crocodiles to grab it. She finally gets the kite, and when she yanks on it, it pops off the flying apparatus. And the hook goes zinging up into the lights and catches.

So now there is this big loop of wire hanging in front of the stage. And there's Wendy, holding the kite. And she ad libbed as best she could, as I remember. She said, "On second thought, maybe I can swim." And with that, she walked off the stage, motioning her arms like you would do the swim, the dance, in 1965.

So she does that. At this point, the actors are just falling apart. They are so frightened of the audience. There are just belly laughs rolling up to the stage from the audience. People are howling with laughter at every mistake.

And now any small mistake just takes on these-- any instigation for laughter is just enough of for this audience. And now the old people have given it up. Everyone has quit being nice. Now there's just this kind of frightening roar that comes from the audience every time there's a mistake.

Ira Glass

Well, what happened? At some point the audience turned and realized, oh wait. I realize what's going on here. This is a fiasco.

Jack Hitt

Yeah. This is a fiasco. And what's really interesting about a fiasco is that once it starts to tumble down, the audience wants to push it further along.

Ira Glass

Oh, they get hungry for more fiasco.

Jack Hitt

Oh, yeah.

Ira Glass

If the play proceeded perfectly, they would be disappointed.

Jack Hitt

Oh, it would have been a grave disappointment had not been just one more mistake after another, one more embarrassment after another. Now the reason they're there is to chronicle these embarrassments. This is why I have remembered this play for 25 years.

Towards Act Three, Ira, the director had decided that she wanted to break down the fourth wall. This was cutting-edge theater, as far as she was concerned.

Ira Glass

Before you do this, I just want to explain. When we say breaking down the fourth wall, what we mean is the wall between the actors and the audience. Usually it's impermeable, but then there came a point in the late '60s, early '70s, where a lot of theaters-- basically, the actors would come out into the audience.

Jack Hitt

That's right, and interact with the audience and break down that wall. So the idea being that you would get more in touch with the dramatic sense and the reality of what was happening.

Anyway, so in this particular scene, what was going to happen was that the Indians were going to throw rope ladders down from the balcony and climb down these rope ladders into the audience and move among the audience in their very scary, savage way and frighten us. Anyway, I know about this scene, because my friend David, who I went to high school with, was in it.

So when David was climbing over the top of this balcony to climb down the rope, he lost his footing and fell to the floor from the balcony, a distance of about 15 to 20 feet.

Ira Glass

Oh my god.

Jack Hitt

A good fall.

Ira Glass

That's horrible.

Jack Hitt

Yeah. And he landed on both of his feet and sprained both of his ankles and, of course, curled into a fetal position and began to cry. He was really, really hurt.

Now, to appreciate the horrible moment I'm now describing, also understand that it's a Friday night. We are in a college town. And there is a volunteer fire and ambulance department. And in order to summon the rescuers from wherever they are, an alarm is sounded that can be heard for five miles. That alarm is located right over this theater.

So the alarm goes off, OK? This is an air raid siren. It is so loud, you can put your fingers in your ear, and it's still hurting your ears. We're right under it. It can be heard for five miles.

And then, of course, three minutes later, busting through the door of the theater are these 15 firemen who are in boots, hats. They've got hoses. They don't know what it is. All they know is that they've been sent out on a call. And to add to the chaos, the director, of course, has flogged the actors that the show must go on.

Ira Glass

No matter what.

Jack Hitt

No matter what. So while all of this is happening-- and several people are attending to David. And other people have just now decided that since the firemen are here, he's going to be fine. They can start laughing. And now the audience has just completely lost control.

People are standing up in their seats and shouting for more. They want blood. At this point, people are actually injured in the production. And they want more. Somehow, that's how this entire play ended.

Ira Glass

What's interesting about that this as a fiasco, I feel like the thing it makes me understand about fiascoes, is that the fiasco itself is an altered state. That is, all the normal rules are off. You have left the normal rules of how the audience is going to interact with the actors.

Jack Hitt

Right. I've never seen a production like this. And I've never seen an audience collapse like this.

Ira Glass

See, but I wonder, when you think about what people go to theater for, what kind of release people want, people want an experience that will take them out of themselves. We all want an experience that would take us out of ourselves and into another place in another reality. And it sounds like this production, even though it was a fiasco-- in fact, because it was a fiasco-- was more successful at that than any conventional play could be.

Jack Hitt

Well, see, I have to disagree with you there. I think the old theater critics, the ancients, would say that the reason you go to the theater and to see a great production is to be, I think the word these used to use is "transported." The idea being that you would be lifted away from your animal nature and into these higher, more spiritual realms, or get in touch with these greater, tragic emotions, right? But of course, what happened here was the exact opposite. We got transported directly in touch with our animal being.

Ira Glass

Our baser selves.

Jack Hitt

Right. But that's almost as rare, if not more so, than a great production.

Ira Glass

Jack Hitt. He normally writes for The New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker.

[MUSIC - "I WON'T GROW UP" BY RICKIE LEE JONES]

Act Two. What We Wanted To Do.

Ira Glass

Act Two, What We Wanted To Do. With some fiascoes, all social order breaks down. With others, a thing that you're trying to create simply refuses to be created. This next fiasco falls into that second category. Ron Carlson wrote this story. Jeff Dorchen reads it.

Jeff Dorchen

What we wanted to do was spill boiling oil onto the heads of our enemies as they attempted to bang down the gates of our village. But, as everyone now knows, we had some problems, primarily technical problems, that prevented us from doing what we wanted to do the way we had hoped to do it. What we're asking for today is another chance.

There has been so much media attention to this boiling oil issue that it is time to clear the air. There's a great deal of pressure to dismantle the system we have in place and bring the oil down off the roof. This would be a mistake.

Yes, there were problems last month during the Visigoth raid. But as I will note, these are easily remedied. From its inception, I have been intimately involved with the boiling oil project-- research, development, physical deployment. I also happened to be team leader on the roof last month when we had occasion to try the system during the Visigoth attack about which so much has been written.

First, the very concept of oil on the roof upset many of our villagers. Granted, it is exotic. But all great ideas seem strange at first. When our researchers realize we could position a cauldron 200 feet directly above our main portals, they began to see the possibilities of the greatest strategic defense system in the history of mankind. But at every turn we've met problems that our researchers could not, despite their intelligence and intuition, have foreseen.

For instance, how were we to get a 1,9000-pound brass cauldron onto the roof? In the end, the cauldron was raised to the roof by means of a custom-designed net and petard under less than ideal conditions. The Retrogoths and the Nilogoths plundered our village almost incessantly during the cauldron's four-month ascent.

The cauldron's arrival on the roof was quite a moment. I remember it well. We stood by that gleaming symbol of our impending safety, a bright brass beacon to the world that we were not going to take it anymore. The wind carried up to us the cries of villagers being carried away by either the Maxigoths or the Minigoths.

But there we stood. As I felt the wind in my hair and watched the sporadic procession of home furnishings being carried out of our violated gates, I knew we were perched on the edge of a new epoch.

Well, there was some excitement. We began at once. We started a fire under the cauldron. And we knew we would all soon be safe. At that point, I made a mistake, which I now readily admit. In the utter ebullience of the moment, I called down. I did not scream maniacally, as was reported. I called down that it would not be long. And I probably shouldn't have, because it may have led some of our citizenry to lower their guard. It was a mistake. I admit it.

There were, as we found almost immediately, still some bugs to be worked out of the program. For instance, there had never been a fire on top of the entry tower before. And yes, as everyone is aware, we had to spend more time than we really wanted containing the blaze, fueled as it was by the fresh high winds and the tower's wooden shingles. I hasten to add that the damage was moderate, as moderate as a four-hour fire could be.

But throughout this relentless series of setbacks, pitfalls, and rooftop fires, there has been a hard core of us absolutely dedicated to doing what we wanted to do, to splash scalding oil onto intruders as they pried or battered, yet again, at our old damaged gates. It was a little fire on the rooftop. It was of no consequence, a fribble, a tiny obstacle to be stepped over with an easy stride.

Were we tired? Were we dirty? Were some of us burned and cranky? No matter. We were committed. And so the next day, the first quiet day we'd had in this village in months, that same sooty cadre stood in the warm ashes high above the entry steps and tried again.

We knew, as we know right now, that our enemies are manifold and voracious and generally rude and persistent. And we wanted to be ready. But tell me this. Where does one find out how soon before an enemy attack to put the oil on to boil? Does anyone know? Let me assure you, it is not in any book. We were writing the book.

We were vigilant. We squinted at the horizon all day long. And when we first saw the dust in the foothills, we fired our cauldron, using wood that had been elevated through the night in woven baskets. Even speaking about it here today, I can feel the excitement stirring in my heart. The orange flames licked the sides of the brass container hungrily, as if in concert with our own desperate desire for security and revenge.

In the distance, I could see the phalanx of Visigoths marching toward us like a warship through a sea of dust. And in my soul, I pitied them and the end toward which they so steadfastly hastened. They seemed the very incarnation of mistake, their dreams of a day abusing our friends and families and of petty arson and lewd public behavior about to be extinguished in one gorgeous wash of searing oil. I was beside myself.

It is important to know now that everyone on the roof that day exhibited orderly and methodical behavior. There was no wild screaming or cursing or even the kind of sarcastic chuckling you might expect in those about to enjoy a well-deserved and long-delayed victory. The problems of the day were not attributable to inappropriate deportment. My staff was good.

It was when the Visigoths had approached close enough that we could see their cruel eyes and we could read their savage and misspelled tattoos that I realized our error. At that time, I put my hand on the smooth side of our beautiful cauldron and found it only vaguely warm, lukewarm, tepid. We had not known then what we now know. We need to put the oil on soon. It was my decision and my decision alone to do what we did, and that was to pour the warm oil on our enemies as they milled about the front gates, hammering at it with their truncheons.

Now, this is where my report diverges from so many of the popular accounts. We have heard it said that the warm oil served as a stimulant to the attack that followed, the attack I alluded to earlier, in which the criminal activity seemed even more animated than usual in the minds of some of our townspeople. Let me say first, I was an eyewitness. I gave the order to pour the oil and I witnessed its descent.

I am happy and proud to report that the oil hit its target with an accuracy and completeness I could have only dreamed of. We got them all. There was oil everywhere. We soaked them. We coated them. We covered them with a lustrous layer of oil. Unfortunately, as everyone knows, it was only warm.

Their immediate reaction was also what I had hoped for, surprise and panic. This, however, lasted about one second. Then, several of them looked up into my face and began waving their fists in what I could only take as a tribute. And then, yes, they did become quite agitated anew, recommencing their assault on the weary planks of our patchwork gates. Some have said that they were on the verge of abandoning their attack before the oil was cast upon them, which I assure you is not true.

As to the attack that followed, it was no different in magnitude or intensity than any of the dozens we suffer every year. It may have seemed more odd or extreme, since the perpetrators were greasy and thereby more offensive. And they did take every stick of furniture left in the village, including the pews from the church, every chair in the great hall, and four milking stools, the last four from the dairy.

But I, for one, am simply tired of hearing about the slippery stain on the village steps. Yes, there is a bit of a mess. And yes, some of it seems to be permanent. My team removed what they could with salt and talc all this week. All I'll say now is watch your step as you come and go. In my mind, it's a small inconvenience to pay for a perfect weapon system.

Ira Glass

"What We Wanted to Do" is from Ron Carlson's book of short stories called Hotel Eden. Ron's latest book is Return to Oakpine.

Coming up, man versus squirrel, specifically cop versus squirrel. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Three. Squirrel Cop.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, Fiasco, our own inquiry into the nature of what makes a fiasco, when you have left the world of mishaps, stumble, human error, and you enter into the much more rarefied realm of fiasco. We have arrived at Act Three of our program. Act Three, Squirrel Cop.

Well, human error is often at the heart of a fiasco. But what happens when you combine human error with, what we will call in this case, animal error? We have this story from a police officer in a suburban community on the East Coast.

Cop

There was nothing, nothing going on. Saturday night in this village. Really quiet. Super cold. And this call came over for unknown animal in a house. And it was on my post. It was about five minutes away.

So myself and another car were assigned the call. And we show up there. And luckily for me, it was another guy who was pretty new. So we walk up to the door with all our stuff on, the nylon coat, the vest, the belt, the whole nine yards.

And the door opens, and the guy who is behind the door, he's about 30. I was 23 at the time. He's about 30. He looks like a broker, a lawyer. He's just really well put together, a nice guy wearing glasses.

He's wearing these, like, silk pajamas with a monogram, got my attention. And he's going, listen I'm really sorry to bother you. Normally, I'd handle this sort of stuff on my own. But my wife really insisted I call.

So we ask him what the problem is. He says, well, we were having kind of a romantic evening down in the living room, and we heard a scratching upstairs. So I ran upstairs to see what it was. And it turns out it's coming from the attic. There's something up there. And it's just running around, knocking a few small things over. I can't tell what it is. It could be a squirrel, a raccoon. I really don't know.

So the other cop that I was with said, well, you know, we really don't handle that. It's not so much a police function. But we do have numbers of these private contractors who will come in and they'll put a humane trap down, and they'll remove the animal for you. And it's really not such a big deal. But it's really not our thing.

So right as he was in the middle of saying that and getting us off the hook, the guy swings the door back, and there's his wife, who was just beautiful. She was beautiful. She was probably about 26 or 27, but just really beautiful-- perfect skin, long blonde hair, great teeth, brilliant blue eyes, a really nice smile, just, like, beautiful and friendly. If she had said, eat this broken glass, I just would have said, OK, broken glass it is. That's fine.

But she seemed really nice. So I was going to be, like, Galahad. So I just threw my arm back into this guy's chest, into my partner's chest. And I said, Mark, we can handle this. It'll be OK.

And she was just, oh, thank you so much. And she was really sweet. And I was, like, struck dead. So we walk inside. And she goes, I'm going to throw a pot of coffee on. And we go upstairs. We follow the man of the house upstairs. And we're underneath one of those trapdoors that goes into the attic with the staircase that folds out.

And we do hear an animal upstairs scratching away, just kind of scuttling around the floor. And there's definitely something up there. And it's making pretty good speed up, going from one end of the roof to the other. So I reached up and I took the trapdoor down. We unfolded the ladder.

Now, I have this big, heavy flashlight, your cop flashlight, the four D-cells, the metal case, the whole thing. And I shine it up through the hole in there. And it's pretty black. I could see the rafters, but really nothing else around there. And I start up the ladder. Now, the guy who owned the house is standing almost directly underneath me, just to the side of the ladder, looking straight up at me. And my partner's at the base of the ladder, right behind me.

So just before I stuck my head through this black hole, I just kind of paused. I crunched my body up underneath, because I'm realizing, gee, I don't know where this thing is. The second we pulled down the trapdoor, all noise upstairs just ceased.

So I was kind of nervous. And I was like, well, I look like an idiot just crouched up here on the top of the ladder. So I took the flashlight, and I just popped my head up, turned the light on again.

And about six inches from the front of my face was this squirrel at eye level with me, kind of reared back on its legs. And I swear, from where I was standing, it looked Godzilla. It just scared the heck out of me. I thought, it's a squirrel. It's going to hiding somewhere. It's going to be terrified of me. It was six inches away from me.

And it really startled me. So I kind of went, ah, and jump back. And the flashlight slips out of my hands. And it's heavy. And it falls directly onto the nose of the guy who's looking straight up at me. And I don't think it broke it, but it did some damage. And his hands went up to his face, blood just starting pouring out between his hands.

Ira Glass

This is the homeowner.

Cop

This is the homeowner. I lose my balance and fall backwards, directly onto my partner. And I just pancake him. We're both on our backs. He's on his back. I'm on his stomach on my back, scuttling around like a beetle trying to get up in this really narrow hallway. It's a mess.

The squirrel, while we're floundering around in the hallway, jumps down the stairs-- boink, boink, boink-- lands on me, and takes off down the stairs.

Ira Glass

How undignified.

Cop

It was terrible. It was terrible. So we're wondering, gee, where is the squirrel? And right at that second, the woman who lived there, you hear her scream. So my partner goes, well, we found the squirrel. It's wherever she is.

So we go running downstairs. And the squirrel had come into the living room where they had been having their romantic evening. They a fire going. They had pillows arranged around one corner of the couch next to the fire. And they had champagne flutes out. Nice house, really nice, I mean, it just smelled brand new-- new carpeting, new rugs, new paint. They hadn't been there for that long.

So the squirrel, when it bolted down the staircase, took off into the living room and ran underneath the couch for cover. So we run downstairs. This guy is bleeding all over the place on his carpets. His wife looks, and says, what have you done to my husband? I start going, oh, it was an accident. And then I just stop in mid-sentence. What's the point? We've only been there about two minutes.

So the squirrel is underneath the couch. And my partner is going, let's get out of here. This is just-- it's not going well. So I'm not beaten yet. I always have another idea.

So the squirrel is under this couch, which is in the middle of the room. So I have this bright idea. Why don't we move the furniture away from one of the corners? And we'll put the couch in the corner. And the squirrel will probably move along with the couch, because it's the only cover available to it. And once we get into the corner, we'll only have two open sides of the couch to worry about. So we did that.

Ira Glass

That is so tactical.

Cop

Yes. Yeah, I was very proud of myself at that instant. But you know. I asked her for a box. And she says, sure, we've got boxes. We just moved in. We have nothing but boxes. She runs out to the garage, and she comes back with a box. And the box is long enough. And it fits across the entire short side of the couch, where the armrest would be.

So I start sweeping underneath the couch with my nightstick, trying to move the squirrel toward the box, figuring we'll capture it and just get rid of it. And we'll be out of here. And there'll be no more mayhem.

So it's actually working very well. And the squirrel is moving down along. You can hear it. It's chittering. And I'm trying not to hurt it. I'm nervous about the thing. It might bite me. I don't want to hurt it, really. It's just an animal.

So I'm moving it along, and everything's going very well. And then with about eight inches to go, I took one more swipe, and the thing just bolted out from underneath the couch. It was lined with tassels. I couldn't really see under the couch. It bolted out from underneath the couch and ran directly into the fireplace, which is about three feet away. The fireplace was directly ahead of it, and it ran into the fire and caught on fire, and ran directly back out and directly back under the couch.

Ira Glass

Is it on fire?

Cop

It was on fire. Yeah, the tail, the bushy fur, the whole bit. I mean, it wasn't, like, flaming or anything. But it was smoking. And there was a little bit of fire coming off the tail. So it runs back under the couch. And the couch catches on fire in seconds-- I mean, in seconds. It must have had dust under there or something else. But it just caught on fire immediately.

And my partner and I just don't even talk. We just grab the couch, heave it upside down. And now there's plenty of oxygen for the fire to really get going. And it starts up. And we're patting it out. And it's sort of getting away from us.

So we grab the only thing that's really available. And those are these really nice silk pillows. And we have one in each hand, the both of us. And we're just windmilling away at this fire on the couch. And we put it out. But it's smoking terribly. And it was a disaster.

The couch is upside down. The bottom of it is burnt. The house is filling with smoke from the couch. The squirrel, when it went under the couch, in its death throes, just latched onto the bottom of the couch. It's like this smoking piece of gristle underneath the couch, latched on there with its claws. And we're pounding, smearing it all over the place. The smoke alarms are firing away. The guy's standing with handkerchiefs and paper towels up around his nose, which is still bleeding. His pajamas are a mess. They're covered with blood, the front of them.

And we finally get the fire out. And we're both completely red, sweating, because we're dressed for, like, zero degree weather. And it's hot there by the fire. We're mortified. The house is full of smoke.

The wife just looks around and just starts to cry. She goes, what have you done? What have you done to my house? You could see her just clicking things off on her fingers. OK, the dead squirrel, ruined pillows, need a new couch, the walls are covered with soot, the fire alarms are going off, my husband's disfigured. And then she really kind of just lost it.

And he was just looking at us and shaking his head, like he couldn't believe that these two idiots showed up and did this to his house over nothing, really. And he just goes, you know, you really haven't done anything wrong. I can't point to any one thing that you did that I have a reason to get angry about. You really haven't done anything wrong. I mean, we did call you. But I just, I can't thank you for this. They call for a squirrel. They end up with $3,000, $4,000 worth of damage and a broken nose. And this is all within about five minutes.

Ira Glass

Could that have happened to you now, 13 years later?

Cop

There's always a new mistake to be made. I don't think I would make that particular mistake. I mean, you make plenty of mistakes. You make plenty of mistakes. That's just part of that job. You just try not to make the same one twice. But there's such variety that you're going to make hundreds, you're going to make thousands of mistakes, until you really get a handle on what you're doing.

And with police work, they afford you plenty of space to make mistakes. But there's things that just aren't your responsibility. If you get involved in things that aren't your responsibility, or that you're really not equipped to handle, or that don't have a specific plan, a plan that's thought through to a conclusion, you probably should reevaluate what you're doing.

Ira Glass

Yeah, now that you mention that, that's right. You walk into the house, thinking OK, we'll get this squirrel. Like, how were you going to get the squirrel? What was the best case scenario?

Cop

That's a great question. I guess I was thinking that I would go up there in the attic and find this cowering squirrel and somehow kind of lure it into some kind of a trap. And then walk out with it and be like a hero. But as it turned out, it was a Pyrrhic victory for the squirrel, but the squirrel definitely won. The squirrel really kicked our ass.

Ira Glass

That is not what you want to be saying at the end of the day.

Cop

No. No. I mean, it took a long time to even tell people about it. I was so new. I didn't want to know what a bonehead I was when I first came onto the job.

Ira Glass

Our interviewee, who asked not to be named on the radio, has been on the force for 28 years.

[MUSIC - "FOX SQUIRREL" BY MUDDY WATERS]

Act Four. Fiascos As A Force For Good In The World.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Fiascoes as a Force for Good. George Clooney, Barbara Streisand, Jennifer Aniston, Vidal Sassoon, Jodie Foster, Alicia Silverstone, Brad Pitt, Keanu Reeves, Sharon Stone, and John Travolta, also George Burns, Bob Hope, Gene Kelly, Gena Rowlands, also Quentin Tarantino, John Waters, Nora Ephron-- Margy Rochlin has interviewed all these people.

She does big magazine feature stories for big magazines in the New York Times. But the very, very first big feature assignment she was actually sent out on was by a publication in 1982. The Los Angeles Reader sent out a very nervous, very youthful Margy Rochlin to interview Moon Unit Zappa. You may remember her, daughter of Frank Zappa.

She had consented to her second interview ever after the release of her runaway hit song, "Valley Girl."

Margy Rochlin

In this little bit that she does on this song, she's using a lot of this language, this sort of Valspeak that no one had ever heard before. And it was considered really exotic. And so I was from the valley, so I was sent to go talk to her.

Ira Glass

She was one of your people. Speak to her in your secret, private argot.

Margy Rochlin

Exactly. And of course, what is so touching to me is that I totally bought that. You're right. I'm the right person for the job. I'm going to go speak to her in the valley language. And we will bond.

Ira Glass

So you get there, and you're a bit nervous. And the pressure is on. Which is, of course, the setting for a possible triumph or possible fiasco. And what happens next?

Margy Rochlin

Well, what I noticed was it was a tense situation. I just didn't feel like it was going very well. And the mother was sort of hovering.

Ira Glass

Right. Well, we have a recording of it, because you had a tape recorder rolling during this.

Margy Rochlin

Yes.

Margy Rochlin

What are some other hang outs in the valley, besides the Galleria?

Moon Unit Zappa

Bowling alleys with big arcades are very popular.

Margy Rochlin

Like what?

Margy Rochlin

Oh, I'm trying-- at this point, I'm sort of that rock bottom level that everyone can get at in an interview, where you're just saying, like, what's your favorite color? And she's trying to help me along.

Margy Rochlin

Kirkwood's is gone.

Moon Unit Zappa

It's now the sports center.

Margy Rochlin

Oh, but it's the same thing?

Moon Unit Zappa

Yeah, it's still very popular.

Margy Rochlin

So we're seated in the den. And the mother made me coffee. But I was too nervous to drink it. But I sort of kept staring at it. And she kept staring at it. And I felt like it was pretty important that at some point, I better drain that coffee cup.

And so what happened was Moon told me a joke. And I didn't see the joke coming. And right before she told me the joke, I had taken a big swig of the coffee, which was now cold. And when she told me the joke, I burst out laughing. And I started to choke. And so I pressed my lips together, so I didn't spit it out. I didn't want to do a spit-take. And the coffee came shooting out my nose.

Ira Glass

Shooting out your nose?

Margy Rochlin

Shooting right out my nose.

Moon Unit Zappa

Are you OK?

[COUGHING]

Moon's Mother

Are you OK? Get your hands up.

Margy Rochlin

I was really embarrassed, but simultaneously, I couldn't breath. At the same time, I was choking. And I jumped up. And I sort of started running around the room, knocking things over. And I think that they didn't know what was going on. But the mother began chasing me.

Ira Glass

She began chasing you?

Margy Rochlin

She began chasing me, because I was running from corner to corner, trying to catch my breath. And she began chasing me. And at a certain point, she got behind me, and she gave me the Heimlich maneuver.

Moon's Mother

Put your arms up. No, really. Seriously? OK?

Moon Unit Zappa

Let's do the Heimlich maneuver.

Ira Glass

Well, I've been in the news business-- I've been a reporter for 20 years. And nobody's ever given me the Heimlich maneuver while I've been on a story.

Margy Rochlin

Well, I always say that it's a benchmark. It's a very low benchmark. And I can do any interview. I can get thrown off a set. I can be cursed out by the subject, but I can leave and get in the car, and I can drive home and think, I didn't blow coffee out my nose.

Ira Glass

Now, what happened after that?

Margy Rochlin

It was sort of like we'd all been in an earthquake together. And all of nervousness left the room. And suddenly we were three gals, just chatting. And I remember that I sort of hugged them both when I left.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Margy Rochlin

They were now my friends.

Ira Glass

It's interesting, because one of our criteria for a fiasco is that all social order, the normal social structure breaks down. And literally, that's what happens here. The normal interview stops. And the social structure of the moment completely changes. The mom gives you the Heimlich maneuver. And then, suddenly, it stops feeling like an interview.

Margy Rochlin

Yeah. And I have to say that it was a very embarrassing experience, and it completely made me feel close to them. It was so interesting. When Moon's father died a while ago, I bumped into her somewhere, and we both burst into tears. I really felt like a little sister of mine had had a loss. The starting point was--

Ira Glass

That moment.

Margy Rochlin

--that moment.

Ira Glass

To me, the thing about it that's useful is that it shows the useful purpose of a fiasco. That is, when social order breaks down, that could be a force not just for chaos and for entropy and for evil, but in fact, that could be a force for good.

Margy Rochlin

Right.

Ira Glass

It can bring people together.

Margy Rochlin

Right. It was actually this huge success to me. I'd never been sent out under these kind of circumstances before. And I remember we beat the local paper. The Herald Examiner followed us a week later. And so we had the first story. And it was sort of considered the definitive one, because we had this glossary of terms that I had made or put together.

Ira Glass

Of Valleyspeak terms.

Margy Rochlin

Of Valleyspeak terms. And then it was syndicated.

Ira Glass

And most of the quotable stuff that you ended up using in your story happened after the incident?

Margy Rochlin

Yeah.

Ira Glass

It happened after squirting the coffee through your nose.

Margy Rochlin

Right, exactly. Exactly. It's a technique I don't suggest anyone trying. For years afterwards, Moon would send me postcards. And on the postcard somewhere would be a picture of a nose, and there would be liquid coming out of it. Sort of like my logo.

Ira Glass

Margy Rochlin in Los Angeles.

[MUSIC - "DAMAGE CONTROL" BY THE IDLE HANDS] [MUSIC - "DAMAGE CONTROL" BY THE IDLE HANDS]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Nancy Updike and myself, with Paul Tough, Alix Siegel, and Julie Snyder. Contributing editors for today's program, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, and Consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help today from Dana Chivvis. Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon is our production manager. Elise Bergerson is our administrative assistant. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Musical help today from John Connors and Damien Graef.

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Torey Malatia, who walks into our studio at the end of each and every episode of our show to grimly assess the damage.

Cop

Dead squirrel, ruined pillows, need a new couch. The walls are covered with soot. The fire alarms are going off.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of this American life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.