Transcript

61:

Fiasco!
Transcript

Originally aired 04.25.1997

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Full audio: http://tal.fm/61

Act One. Opening Night.

Boy

From PRI, Public Radio International--

Woman

From PRI, Public Radio International--

Man

From PRI, Public Radio--

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 had 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. And 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 fiascos 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 sort of 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, and--

Ira Glass

See, but this, in fact, is one of the criteria for greatness, is 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 that extra distance into fiasco.

Well, 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 1,900-pound brass cauldron, and some oil. Don't even ask. Act Three, Car Wars, the true story of how putting NPR's show Car Talk on the air in Wisconsin led not just to hundreds of angry letters from listeners, not just to a protest rally, not just to a monthly newsletter devoted to the scandal, but eventually, a state audit and state hearings by the legislature. Act Four, Fiascoes as a Force for Good in this World.

Act Two. What We Were Trying To Do.

Ira Glass

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

Jack Hitt

Opening night comes. And 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 sort of hang in the air like puppets, just dangling there and getting jerked up an inch or two or back and forth. And they--

Ira Glass

And then, sometimes, they're just stationary, just--

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 kind of 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. So they--

Ira Glass

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

Jack Hitt

No one is laughing. 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 sort of 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.

Jack Hitt

Right.

Ira Glass

We are 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 kind of put the audience on notice. And that's when, as the kids are jerking up and down and swinging back and forth and sort of going around 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

OK, so and?

Jack Hitt

And so he's flying around in this circle. And the audience sort of 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. And 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's sort of left the stage itself. He's now up there with the lights. And then all of a sudden, he's just sort of-- suddenly, he would just plummet back down to the stage and be caught up just before he hit the floor.

And it was hard to watch, because, as you can tell, it's an incredibly funny moment. But like I said, 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, just to 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're 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 sort of 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 we harms people and hates children, and 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. And now--

Ira Glass

He is bad.

Jack Hitt

He's very bad. He had the worst ad lib I've ever heard. 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. 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.

Jack Hitt

Right.

Ira Glass

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. Then the lights come up, and we are in Never Never Land.

Ira Glass

In Act Two.

Jack Hitt

Yeah, this is, like, 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 light bulb--

Ira Glass

A bare light bulb?

Jack Hitt

--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, sort of motioning her arms like you would do the "swim," the dance, in 1965.

So she does that. At this point, the audience-- 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 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 there 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 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.

Ira Glass

Right.

Jack Hitt

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 knew about this scene because my friend, David, who I went to high school with, was in it. And 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 that 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 you 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 this as a fiasco, I feel like the thing that it makes me understand about fiascos, 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 will take us out of ourselves and into another place and 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. See, I think the old theater critics, the ancients, would say that the reason you go to the theater to see a great production is to be, I think the word they 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 you know, that's almost as rare, if not more so, than a great production.

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

Act Three. Car Wars.

Ira Glass

Act Two, What We Wanted to Do. With some fiascos, all social order breaks down. With others, a thing that you're trying to create simply refuses to be created. And 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 realized 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 1,900-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. And 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 out 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. 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 sooner. 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.

DINNER AND TOURNAMENT ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACK]

Ira Glass

Coming up, how a friendly little radio show about cars from the fair city of Boston ended up the subject of legislative hearings in Wisconsin and other fiascos. That's in a minute, from Public Radio International, when our program continues.

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

Ray Magliozzi

Gee, you know, I just had a brilliant invention. People have cup holders in their cars. But the problem with a cup holder, it's frequently located in a bad spot.

Tom Magliozzi

I know what you're going to think of. A straw. A three-foot straw.

Ray Magliozzi

A three-foot flexible straw.

Tom Magliozzi

You could even drink gasoline out of the tank if you wanted to.

Ray Magliozzi

Or you could drink out of your friend's cup, too--

Ira Glass

This is Car Talk. And though you may think of it as simply the friendly banter of Tom and Ray Magliozzi, Click and Clack, it is also the single most popular hour in public radio. And this story starts simply enough. Wisconsin Public Radio, a network of 14 stations in, guess which state, decided they wanted to save a few bucks. And years ago, when nearly every other public radio station in the country signed up with the most single popular show in public radio, Wisconsin public radio thought, it'll cost money. It'll cost us tens of thousands of dollars. And it's just a car show. We can do our own car show. So they did.

Lori Skelton

Welcome to another hour of About Cars. Lori Skelton in the studio with Matt Joseph. And later in the hour, we have a review of the 1995 Dodge Viper RT/10. And we stand to run out of adjectives for this before the hour is over. It's a stunning piece of raw, brute force.

Matt Joseph

I think the one word we applied was "wow."

Lori Skelton

Yeah, basically. We'll add a few others a little later--

Ira Glass

Matt Joseph's show All About Cars, was on Saturday mornings, where most public radio stations run Car Talk, the most popular show on public radio. He was the car expert. She would prompt him along, asking the questions that you or I might ask. Call-ins went into much more technical detail about engines than you ever hear from Tom and Ray. And the show started with 10 minutes of serious automotive industry news.

News Reporter

General motors announced in Los Angeles last week that they're going to sell EV1, the impact car, which many people have seen. I've actually driven it a couple of years ago. It will be joined by a conversion of the S10--

Ira Glass

It was a perfectly decent, solid, informative hour of radio. And while it was not the single most popular show on public radio, it got good ratings, had fans, did great in pledge drives. Matt Joseph thought he was doing everything right. Now, a fiasco can begin, like any human dispute, with a simple misunderstanding, a difference in perspective. And in this case, Matt Joseph's bosses had a completely different perspective on his show from his perspective.

Sure, he got great ratings, his bosses thought, but it could be so much more, if only he more like, well, like the most popular single show on public radio, Car Talk. They were constantly trying to get him to make his show snappier, faster paced, more of an entertainment. Matt Joseph thought they were wrong. They were always threatening to cancel him and bring in Car Talk. They wrote unpleasant memos, and there were tense meetings. And this fundamental disagreement laid the groundwork for the fiasco that followed.

Finally, because of a complicated deal involving Whad'Ya Know?, Michael Feldman's game show, which is produced by Wisconsin Public Radio, the price of Car Talk to Wisconsin Public Radio dropped from $33,000 to an affordable $10,000. And the network which had thought that it did not need the single most popular show on public radio looked over its shoulder at what was happening on 400 other radio stations and decided that maybe, in fact, they had been wrong. They wanted Car Talk. Joy Cardin is one of the Wisconsin Public Radio programmers behind all this.

Joy Cardin

The most recent audience research that we had showed that Car Talk is a program that works extremely well when it's paired with Whad'Ya Know? with Michael Feldman. And in fact, both programs do better. And we made the recommendation that the best place to put Car Talk would be 9 o'clock on Saturday morning, followed by Whad'Ya Know? with Michael Feldman.

Ira Glass

Of course, 9:00 in the morning was when All About Cars was on the air. But, says, Joy Cardin, they did not want to kill All About Cars. They simply wanted to move it to a different time.

Joy Cardin

We knew About Cars was a popular program. We certainly were trying to keep it on the schedule. The recommendation was to find a mutually agreeable time on Saturday afternoons.

Ira Glass

Did you name a specific time?

Joy Cardin

We started with a specific time. We started with a specific time of 3 o'clock.

Ira Glass

So what happened then? What was his response?

Joy Cardin

His response was, absolutely not.

Matt Joseph

Ms. Cardin said they were thinking of moving it to 3 o'clock. I said I found that unacceptable. I never said I wouldn't do it. I just said I found it unacceptable in the sense that I really didn't like it.

Joy Cardin

Our response to that was, "Well, is there any time on Saturday afternoon that would be agreeable to you to reschedule this program?" "No."

Matt Joseph

The last thing I said to them was, "I suggest we do it at 8 o' clock." They said, "We will think about it and get back to you." They got back to me by firing me. I never flatly rejected 3 o'clock. Now, if you want to ask me, would I have rejected 3 o' clock? Yes, I would have.

Ira Glass

Now, to understand why he would say no to 3 o'clock, you have to understand that, from Matt Joseph's perspective, this was just the latest insult from bosses who had always doubted and questioned the way he did his show. It made no sense to him, this treatment. After all, his ratings were strong. Sometimes, he was the single strongest show in their Saturday morning lineup. His show was inexpensive. It was a success. Why couldn't they be more respectful?

Matt Joseph

If somebody had come to me and said, "Hey, Matt, we've got a really weak afternoon, and we think you can really help. And we're going to give you really adequate promotion, and so forth. Would you help us out with our--," if somebody had approached me that way, I certainly would have listened and probably would have agreed to it.

Ira Glass

Now, you know, one definition of a fiasco is something small and ordinary that turns into something monstrously large. And what could be smaller in this world, my friend, than simply trying to reschedule a public radio car show from the morning to the afternoon? Well after his show was canceled, 1,500 calls and letters came into Wisconsin Public Radio, demanding that Matt Joseph be put back on the air. Contributors to the network demanded $2,600 in pledges to be returned. 126 people said they would never give money to the network again. Matt Joseph started putting out a monthly newsletter about the fiasco. He organized a rally in Madison. There were editorials in local papers and letters to the editor. Against his will, he said, it became his cause.

Matt Joseph

Car Talk is like a monolith. It has crushed all of the independent car shows around the country, one by one, over the years. It just goes on like a juggernaut. We had something better. Now, there should be room for one serious show on public radio, one show that has content.

Ira Glass

Well, finally, the state of Wisconsin legislature, which gives millions each year to Wisconsin Public Radio, did a state audit investigating the matter, interviewing programmers, showing up at the offices of Wisconsin Public Radio.

Joy Cardin

They showed up. And two auditors did show up to go through our listener files, to see the letters that came in from listeners regarding About Cars. And we provided them with a conference room. And they went through all of the letters and counted them up, how many were for About Cars and how many were for Car Talk.

Ira Glass

If you had to estimate how much time state employees, taxpayer-paid employees, had to spend and ended up spending investigating this, was it two guys for a week? How long were they on this case?

Joy Cardin

It seemed to me that it went on for about three months.

Ira Glass

Oh, my god.

Joy Cardin

Yeah, it did. It seemed to me that it went on for many weeks. And it wasn't every day, but it was very distracting.

Ira Glass

But this was not the only use of taxpayer dollars on this urgent public matter. A joint audit committee of the state legislature held a public hearing, in which legislators and listeners criticized Wisconsin Public Radio programmers. 40 people showed up from all over the state to testify. It made headlines throughout the state. And all this over whether a car show should've been moved to the afternoon or taken off the air. Senator Robert Wirch, who co-chaired the hearing, says the citizens of Wisconsin were mad. He had no choice but to have hearings.

Robert Wirch

Are we micromanaging the station? No. We were providing a forum for all sides to come in and discuss the matter.

Ira Glass

I have to say, though, as an outsider, as somebody who doesn't live in Wisconsin, it just is so strange, the notion that the state legislature would get involved with an issue, what seems so small.

Robert Wirch

Well, this was a locally generated program in Wisconsin. And what did they bring? A network program in from Massachusetts. That has clearly angered citizens of Wisconsin.

Tom Magliozzi

I mean, this is not unusual, I guess. We have demonstrations in just about every city that we're on in. There are people who come to the station, and they picket, and they scream, and they yell.

Ira Glass

Well, for some perspective on this matter, I decided to go to the top, to the men behind the single most popular hour in public radio, Click and Clack, Tom and Ray Magliozzi.

Ira Glass

Since you guys weren't at the hearings to speak in your own defense, I wanted to play you a quote from State Senator Robert Wirch, who held these hearings.

Tom Magliozzi

Robert Wirch?

Ira Glass

Wirch.

Tom Magliozzi

Wirch.

Ira Glass

Senator Robert Wirch of the good state of Wisconsin, who held these hearings. And I wanted to just play what he said about your show versus the local show, which was hosted by a guy named Matt Joseph, and just give you a chance to respond.

Ray Magliozzi

Sure, I'd love to hear it.

Tom Magliozzi

Yeah, OK.

Ira Glass

Here we go.

Robert Wirch

Well, when I listened to Matt Joseph, I had the feeling I was listening to an expert. And he is acknowledged by car collectors around the state as an expert. And the other one, I think, is kind of showbiz with looking for a laugh. And I can understand where the casual fan may like the laughter and camaraderie of the two guys that do the show. But on public radio, we're used to listening to people with a little more expertise.

Ira Glass

Response?

Tom Magliozzi

Yeah. Boy, if that is not the classic definition of a stiff, I don't know what is.

Ray Magliozzi

Yeah, he sounds like a barrel of laughs.

Tom Magliozzi

Well, wouldn't you love to have coffee with him? "On public radio, we're more used to listening to more boring things than these two jerks." Well, tell him that we feel the same way about him. And I didn't enjoy listening to what he had to say, either.

Ray Magliozzi

I won't be voting him anymore.

Tom Magliozzi

Well, I don't know. Everyone has his own opinion. I don't think he's wrong about what he said.

Ray Magliozzi

No, and I'm sure this other fellow, whom we attempted to usurp here, probably is a lot more knowledgeable, certainly more informative, than we are. Because we don't take the car business, at least on the radio, that seriously. Ira, but did anyone speak in our behalf?

Tom Magliozzi

Of course not.

Ira Glass

Apparently not. No, there apparently was an entire hearing, and nobody spoke for the two of you.

Ray Magliozzi

And nobody-- why weren't we invited to defend ourselves? I would have flown my brother out there.

Ira Glass

In a sense, the Wisconsin car show fiasco happens on a much smaller scale whenever any show with any following is taken off any public radio station in this country. People get upset, partly, I think, because every pledge drive-- which is, what, three or four times a year on most of these stations-- listeners hear programmers like me say, "You are the 'public' in public radio." And so listeners are understandably angry, being the "public" in public radio, when a show they like is suddenly gone. But it is exactly incidents like this one in Wisconsin, and programmers' fear of incidents like this one in Wisconsin, that makes innovation so slow in most of the public radio system.

Joy Cardin

Yeah, that's it. I believe that this really has had a very chilling effect on Wisconsin Public Radio and myself, personally.

Ira Glass

Joy Cardin, who spent months dealing with the Wisconsin car show fiasco, says that now she thinks twice before moving any show.

Joy Cardin

And it makes you think long and hard before you make those kinds of decisions, because you don't want necessarily a public outcry or the legislature examining your every move.

Ira Glass

This fiasco is also a parable of bigger changes coming within the public radio system. Partly because of the success of Car Talk, there is a move to come up with lighter, more entertaining shows in the public radio system, especially for weekends. Matt Joseph's fiasco occurred partly because he represented an older style of public radio, a more informative style. After some months off the air, Matt Joseph now does his show All About Cars on a commercial station, WDTY in Madison. He's on up against Car Talk.

Ira Glass

Hey, Matt?

Matt Joseph

Yes?

Ira Glass

Is this over for you yet?

Matt Joseph

Is it over yet? No. No, it will be over when the changes are made at Wisconsin Public Radio that restores that service to what it used to be, a responsive service that has things like children's programming, that has local drama, that educates students in broadcasting. These are all things that don't go on over there anymore.

Ira Glass

You're describing all these things that used to be the kinds of things that were on public radio that didn't draw much audience.

Matt Joseph

Well, I think there's going to have to be room for things that don't draw much audience. And I think they would draw much considerable audience if they were done right.

[MUSIC - "CAR SONG" BY ELASTICA]

Act 4.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Fiascoes as a Force for Good. George Clooney, Jennifer Aniston, Shannon Dougherty, 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, Joel Schumacher. Margy Rochlin has interviewed all these people. She does big magazine feature stories for big magazines. But the very, very first big feature assignment she was actually sent out on by a publication was in 1982. The Los Angeles Reader sent out a very nervous, very youthful Margy Rochlin to interview Moon Unit Zappa, daughter of Frank, who 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 the song, she's using a lot of this language, this sort of Valspeak that no one had never 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 a possible fiasco.

Margy Rochlin

Right.

Ira Glass

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.

What are some other hangouts in the Valley, besides the Galleria?

Moon Unit Zappa

Bowling alleys with big arcades are very popular.

Margy Rochlin

Like what?

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

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 it, and she kept staring at it. And I felt like it was pretty important that, at some point, I'd 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.

[COUGHING]

Adelaide Sloatman

Are you OK? Get your hands up.

Margy Rochlin

And I was really embarrassed. But I couldn't breathe. 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 sort of 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.

Adelaide Sloatman

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

Moon Unit Zappa

Let's do the Heimlich maneuver.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

Ira Glass

Well, I've been in the news business-- I've been a reporter for 20 years. And nobody has 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 had all been in an earthquake together. And all of the 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. And 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 certain 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

Happened after squirting the coffee through your nose.

Margy Rochlin

Right, exactly. Exactly. It's a technique I don't suggest anyone try. 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.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Nancy Updike and myself with Paul Tough, Alix Spiegel, and Julie Snyder. Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Contributing editors for this show, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, and Consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from [? Laura Doggett, ?] Seth Lind, and Cathy Hoang. Musical help from Mr. John Connors.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our story about Car Talk and this whole program first aired in 1997. Wisconsin Public Radio is now 27 stations. Back then, we could barely get on the air in Wisconsin.

Ira Glass

You know, our show isn't on-- we're on in Milwaukee, but the state network hasn't picked us up yet. Somehow, I don't think this is going to help.

Ray Magliozzi

No, this won't help.

Tom Magliozzi

No, I don't think this is going to help very much, either.

Ray Magliozzi

Maybe send a copy of it to Senator Wirch. He might be interested.

Ira Glass

If you want a copy of our program, whether you're a state senator in Wisconsin or not, visit our website, www.thisamericanlife.org, where we now have a free weekly podcast, plus all our old shows. You can get those at the iTunes store, as well. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Torey Malatia, who explains the quality of our program this way.

Jack Hitt

You know, they just don't make those hooks like they used to.

Ira Glass

No, they don't. No, they don't. I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.