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576: Say Yes To Christmas

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Prologue

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's a special Christmas edition of This American Life. We have a bunch of things for you today, including later in the program, "Christmas on Fire." But let's just kick things off right now with a song recorded at an event we did onstage a few weeks ago.

Act One: Christmas On A High Wire

Woman

(SINGING) On the 12th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me 12 drummers drumming, 11 pipers piping, 10 lords a leaping, nine ladies dancing, eight maids a milking, seven swans a swimming, six geese a laying, five golden rings, four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.

Ira Glass

I have always hated that song.

[AUDIENCE LAUGHS]

I have always hated that song. I feel like that song is symbolic of everything that is bad about Christmas. I should say I have no bad feelings about Christmas. I am a noncombatant when it comes to Christmas.

I was onstage talking about this song because we had this idea that we thought might make a really fun thing to try for Christmas. And that is we organized a night of improv comedy. And I know maybe you're saying, OK, how does that go together? Why improv comedy and Christmas?

OK, well, this is going to take a little explaining. Stay with me. This British writer and performer named Daniel Kitson-- I saw him say this thing about Christmas that seems so true. He says that when you're a kid and you wake up Christmas morning, what makes Christmas feel so magical is this feeling of, like, "Oh, my god. It's going to be amazing. The world is so full of possibility. Anything can happen." The fact that Santa Claus even exists, this literally magical being who came to your home.

And Kitson says this thrilled feeling that anything can happen, that is the thing that is so hard to hold onto once we become adults. And in fact, he says that so many adults at Christmas, they try to recreate the same Christmas year after year with the same everything over and over and over. It's like they lock in. Christmas becomes the opposite of "anything can happen." That is why it never feels as magical to adults. But it is possible to get back to that feeling.

And, OK, back to the plan for today's show. One place that adults embrace that feeling that anything could happen and it's going to happen and then they make it happen is improv comedy, where, you know, they walk on stage with no idea what anybody is going to say. And then one person tries something. They say something. And then somebody else pitches in with a line of their own, and then somebody else pitches in. And before you know it, they've made like a whole scene, a whole world, really.

And so with that in mind, we got these incredible improv comedians, and we got a club to perform in, and we did a show. And we did the show in this particular style of improv, where the people on stage, they tell true stories about their lives. And then those stories, those true stories, become the basis of the improv scenes that they then invent. And those scenes lead them to other true stories that then lead them into other improv scenes and so on and so on and so on.

And I was there. I kicked things off with a story about that song, about the song "The 12 Days of Christmas," which is a song that I noticed, even though-- just to say it again-- Christmas is not my day.

Ira Glass

I am not somebody who celebrates Christmas at all. I'm a Jew. And I'm not that kind of Jew whose parents celebrated Christmas on Hanukkah. We were pure Hanukkah people, and we look down on the Christmas Hanukkah Jews.

[AUDIENCE LAUGHS]

And in fact, I grew up in a suburb of Baltimore that was so Jewish, I didn't understand that we were in the minority. And so Christmas, I do nothing. It means nothing to me. The day means nothing. And most years, I go to Vegas on Christmas.

But I do really love Christmas music. I've always loved Christmas music. And at some point in my 20s, I started to make a collection of Christmas CDs and records. And the worst song of all is the song "The 12 Days of Christmas." And whenever it comes on, I just think, like, why is this still in circulation? First of all, the words refer to a wife and a world that none of us can relate to or care about. "12 lords a leaping," like, what is-- what experience is that even referring to? And then swans are swimming, geese are laying. So are we in a warm climate, a cold climate? It just raises so many questions.

But also the form of the song is so intensely boring. And you guys know what I'm talking about, where you do the first one, and then you go back and you do all the ones before it, which you already did. You know I mean? So you do two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree. Then three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree. Then four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree. Five golden rings, four calling birds. And so like-- and so you know what's going to happen. It's repetitious in the most boring way, and then it's always sung very slowly, which is annoying.

And I don't know why it survived hundred of years to still be around. And my only thought is "five golden rings." "Five golden rings" is the hook of the song. And you've sung the song, right? When you get to five golden rings, everybody breathes a sigh of relief. It's like, (SINGING) five golden rings. And you just feel like, yeah!

You know what I mean? It's like the drum solo. That's the hook of the song. And without five golden rings, this song would be nothing.

Okay, so at this point-- this is me back in the studio talking-- at this point, if I could just describe the stage. Sitting on stools in a row, there are six improv comedians. And we got some of the best people around for this kind of thing. Seriously, we felt so lucky they agreed to be in the show. Aidy Bryant and Sasheer Zamata, they're both on Saturday Night Live. Scott Adsit, he was on 30 Rock, and before that, he was in Second City. So was Tammy Sagher. Chris Gethard and Mike Birbiglia, they've both been on our radio program before, Mike many, many times. They both have deep improv backgrounds.

So six of them are sitting on the stage on these stools. And they listen to that first story that I told to kick things off. And Mike was the first one to stand up and speak.

Mike Birbiglia

Wow. Well, first of all I want to disagree with Ira about that song. I think in some sense, it's sort of the "15 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" of Christmas carols. It's anthemic. It's repetitive. I think where the disconnect happens is that it's just British things.

[AUDIENCE LAUGHS]

Woman

What kind of American things would you put in there? Like a bald eagle? A bald eagle in a-- in a what, oak tree?

Mike Birbiglia

Yeah. Bald eagle in an oak tree. Yeah, we just got to de-British the whole thing. I think that's the problem.

Mike Birbiglia

Lady Haversquire.

Lady Haversquire

Yes?

Mike Birbiglia

We've been courting now for going on 10 months. And--

Lady Haversquire

Yes?

Mike Birbiglia

--I've been playing in my mind with what to get you for Christmas.

Woman

Lord Mavermunch, I am sure that whatever you will bring me on Christmas will bring me much-- what?

Lord Mavermunch

May I give it you now?

Woman

Oh! Yes, but so soon before Christmas?

Lord Mavermunch

I'm excited. I think I did well.

Woman

All right.

Lord Mavermunch

Here you are-- five golden rings.

Woman

Oh. Oh my goodness.

Lord Mavermunch

But I've also brought you 23 birds.

Woman

Sorry?

Lord Mavermunch

23 individual birds and 50 human people.

[AUDIENCE LAUGHS]

Could you stay in a group, please?

[GROUP TALKING OVER EACH OTHER]

Woman

Guys, guys, guys.

Man

We are the Christmas presents.

Lord Mavermunch

Do you like it?

Lady Haversquire

I-- I love it. Um, Lord Mavermunch, um, if we could just go back for a moment to the five golden rings.

Lord Mavermunch

Ah, yes.

Lady Haversquire

Yes. Ah, so two questions. Question number one-- what is the difference between a gold ring and a golden ring? Because one seems to imply that it merely has the color, yet none of the value.

Lord Mavermunch

Well, you've caught me there. I'm afraid to say the pear tree cost rather more than I expected.

Lady Haversquire

Lord Mavermunch?

Lord Mavermunch

Lady Haversquire?

Lady Haversquire

Do you remember when you first came courting?

Lord Mavermunch

Oh, yes. My memory is intact.

Lady Haversquire

Was it? Because I distinctly remember telling you I don't like a turtle dove. I find roses played out. And quite frankly, lords a leaping I've seen enough. And yet that's all you seem to have brought.

Lord 1

Oh, come on!

Lord 2

Oh, hey, come on!

Lord 1

We're so good! Watch this! Hut, hut, hut!

Lord 2

[GRUNTING]

Lord 1

I'm going so high!

Lord Mavermunch

Look, just--

Lady Haversquire

Do you know what they call you in the county?

Lord Mavermunch

I don't.

Lady Haversquire

They call you Quantity over Quality.

Woman

Scene.

[AUDIENCE CHEERING]

Ira Glass

I wonder if you guys actually have memories-- did any of you have to go caroling? Or did you sing in--

Woman

I am also super Jewish. I'm Israeli Jewish. So the level of--

Ira Glass

Oh, you totally out-Jew me.

Woman

Yeah. But I was in the Chicago Children's Choir. And it was a little kids choir. And the big thing that you do at Christmas is sing Christmas carols. So two things that I remember very well from Christmas choir was one was I got a solo that I got to do. Yeah. And I screwed up, and that was horrifying.

The other thing that just occurred to me now is-- so it was on the South Side of Chicago. So it was pretty racially diverse, meaning I usually was the minority, not just as a Jew but as a white person, in choir. And so we also did a lot of gospels, which is where I discovered that I can't clap. And it became something that I would practice at home.

Ira Glass

Could I just have clarification, just as a fact-checking matter? You would practice clapping.

Woman

Yeah.

Ira Glass

To what? Like what would be the sound--

Woman

Just radio. I would just turn on the radio, and I'd be like, [CLAPPING] I would just, like, try to clap on the beat. Because if you don't know how to clap and you're in a choir clapping, it's terrifying.

Man

Bernice, I was watching you sing in the chorus.

Bernice

Oh, wow. You saw me? Wow.

Man

I see everything. I'm Jesus.

Bernice

Oh, wow-- this is-- this is so cool for me. This is huge.

Jesus

Oh, listen, it's an honor to meet you.

Bernice

Oh, my god. Thank you. Thank you, Jesus.

Jesus

You know I hear that all day? But it still means a lot when you say it.

Bernice

Aw, Jesus, you're so nice.

Jesus

I got to tell you. You really should not be singing.

[AUDIENCE LAUGHS]

Bernice

[SINGING OFF-KEY] What do you mean? What do you mean by what you're saying?

Jesus

Well, I think--

Bernice

What do you mean?

Jesus

Bernice, I--

Bernice

Jesus, don't say that to me!

Jesus

Bernice, I think you're answering your own question there.

Holy Spirit

You know, I'm the Holy Spirit. And I just wanted to chime in. I think Bernice has a really nice voice. I--

Jesus

Dave, I told you not to come.

Holy Spirit

All right.

Bernice

Well, maybe it's because I'm singing, like, gorgeous God songs. Maybe you want more of like a pop hit or something?

Jesus

No, what I'm saying is that you are singing from your heart, but your heart is not good enough. It really puts other people off, and it's pushing people away from me. I need people. I need more people.

[AUDIENCE LAUGHS]

Executive

We cut to a television executive's office. I got to say, we got this show, and the judges, they're too soft. And I think you're the exact kind of hard edge we need, Jesus.

Jesus

Well, I appreciate the compliment. But I would be happy to do the job, but let me also warn you that when I bring judgment, that's the end of the world.

Executive

Listen, that's the kind of ratings bonanza I've been looking for, OK?

Jesus

I'm in.

Executive

CeeLo, Aguilera, they softball it, Adam Levine. They all feel bad. Nobody gives an honest opinion. I need somebody who's going to be harsh. I need somebody who's going to be brutal, who's going to say, "This is exactly how I see it."

Jesus

Don't talk to me about Adam Levine, man.

Executive

What do I gotta do to get you on my network? I know money means nothing to you. You're omnipotent. You know everything. You have access to everything. What do I gotta do to get you on my airwaves?

Jesus

I want you to live your life as I would live mine.

Executive

[GROAN]

Jesus

Scene!

Abraham

My Jewish brothers, welcome. I call this meeting.

Jacob

You called this minion.

Abraham

Thank you for--

Jacob

There's 10 of us. I got to say there's 10 of us.

Abraham

Thank you for the correction, Jacob. I call this minion to discuss our grievances with Christmas as a holiday. I know it's not our holiday. But I know that I have some concerns.

Jacob

Brother Abraham, I think you should adjust your level of Jew-y. It's a little high.

Abraham

Oh! Here it is. It's on my anklet here. There we are.

Jacob

Oh, well--

Comedian

Well, I don't like it!

Ira Glass

Okay, this is Ira in the studio. I'm just going to stop the tape for a second just to make perfectly clear what's happening on stage right now. OK, so the first comedian in the scene, Mike Birbiglia, he had some trouble with his Jewish accent, as you heard, and he was teased about it. And then another comedian, Aidy Bryant, entered the scene. And she has so much trouble coming up with a Jewish accent that at some point, that just becomes what the scene is about, is her discomfort at this awful accent, and the other performers kind of egging her on and also ribbing her about it very affectionately. OK, back to the scene.

Jacob

Well--

Aidy Bryant

Well, I don't like it! I don't like the holiday one bit.

Abraham

I want to welcome our brother from the Italian branch of Judaism.

[AUDIENCE LAUGHS]

Aidy Bryant

Hey, what's the big deal?

Abraham

Thank you, Antonio, for bringing the 24 pizzas. We hope everything's going well at the temple out in Bay Ridge.

Aidy Bryant

It truly is. Please continue. I'll stay quiet, I promise, for the rest of the meeting.

Jacob

Antonio, you guys have been getting sweat everywhere.

Aidy Bryant

Eh, my favorite thing about being Jewish is, of course, the sweet lasagna! And I want everyone to know that I'm trying my absolute hardest. I feel we must move on.

Man

Scene.

[AUDIENCE CHEERING]

Aidy Bryant

I'm sorry. I'm sorry to all the cultures everywhere around the world.

Man

Fellas, fellas, fellas, get in here. Fellas, I'm working on--

Woman 1

Yeah, yeah, yeah, what's up? Yeah.

Man

I wanted to get the group back together for a Christmas song. And I was just thinking this one would be just "Five Golden Rings."

Woman 1

Whoa.

Woman 2

Wow, OK.

Man

Jettison the other verses.

Woman 1

Mm-hm.

Man

We hit five golden rings hard, right? We circle back. You could do some scatting.

Woman 1

Oh, my god. Well, I'm in! If you're going to finally let me do it, then doopity dop dop, yeah!

Man

I just think we all need to accept the truth, which is that nobody likes the other verses.

Woman 2

I don't no, Jord. I feel like a lot of people are going to miss, like, calling birds.

Woman 1

Yeah, or at least the nine ladies dancing. [SCATTING]

Man

Scene.

[APPLAUSE]

Woman

Dad?

Man

Yeah.

Woman

I want to feed the geese.

Man

OK, we can do that. I just want to-- I just want to make sure you know they're an extremely vicious animal.

Comedian

[HONKING LIKE A GOOSE]

Woman

Dad, I've seen geese before. They're, like, really cute, and--

Man

OK. You know I'm a big believer in letting you learn your lessons.

Woman

You always say that before, like, something really bad happens.

Man

I mean, I just tried to warn you. They can be a really aggressive animal.

Woman

OK.

Man

Sure, yeah.

Woman

Give me the bread.

Man

Yeah.

Woman

OK.

Man

Go for broke, just remember what I told you.

Woman

All right, come here, little goosey.

Comedian

[GOOSE NOISES]

Woman

Oh! [LAUGHS] Okay.

Goose

Whoa, you are really beautiful.

Woman

Oh, my gosh.

Goose

I'm sorry. I don't usually say that. But you are really gorgeous.

Woman

Thanks.

Goose

I mean, you're the kind of person that a goose would give up his whole life for. I mean, I could take you places. I'm going way too fast. I'm sorry. But you-- you're turning me around. [HONK] [GOOSE NOISES]

Woman

Did you hear that?

Man

Yeah, like I told you-- super aggressive.

[AUDIENCE LAUGHS]

Woman

Scene!

Man

Did you guys have this as a kid, where the joy of Christmas, when I look back on it, I think has a lot to do with no school.

Woman 1

Oh, yes.

Man

Just this idea of "Wait, there's a week where there's no school?"

Woman 2

It's so different when you don't celebrate Christmas. Because for you, it's two weeks where you don't see your friends, because they are all going somewhere cool and having fun.

Woman 1

But Jews also get the school break, too, right? It's not like you still have to go to school.

Woman 2

But we love school!

Man

Children, gather around. We have a class-wide announcement.

Woman 2

All right.

Man

The Jews--

Woman 2

This is never good.

Man

Scene!

[AUDIENCE CHEERING]

Woman

I was just going to tell a quick story.

Man

I'm going to listen.

Woman

Great. Well, I feel like we keep talking about, like, especially people who were always experiencing a Jewish Christmas experience. But I was the exact opposite, where until I was 13 years old, I did not know Jewish people existed maybe. And I loved Christmas so much that I would get up at 3:00 in the morning to try and look at my presents.

And I just always felt like such simple things would give me such overwhelming joy that I wish I could have that now. Like, one Christmas morning I was in my little Christmas gown, and I crept down, and there was a giant stuffed animal Saint Bernard, which is not like a bike that you can ride or something that you can do. It's just going to sit there, and you're going to look at it and love it. And as soon as I saw it, I was so happy I could not believe my eyes. I fell to my knees and I [BLEEP] my pants.

I just-- like upon the sight of this Saint Bernard, I just was like, thank you! And I fell to my knees and just blasted right into my pants. So I had to creep into my parents' room and say, like, "Good morning, Mom. Merry Christmas. I've soiled myself, and I need your help."

Ira Glass

Can I ask the other improv stars on stage, like, did you have moments like that, of such incredible joy at Christmas? Not that would take your body to that length, but do you know what I mean? Like moments of just pure, pure joy in that way that I think we rarely have as adults. Do you have--

Man

When I was a kid, my sister and I would get up really early and stand at the top of the stairs, because we knew we weren't allowed to go downstairs. And my dad had this tradition. We would have to wait for him to-- we would just shake with anticipation at the top of the stairs, and wait and wait, and bother them, my parents, to get out of bed. And we'd pull them out of bed. And they would take their sweet time putting on their clothes and getting their shaving, just to torture us, because they knew we were at the top of the stairs.

And my dad would go downstairs first and say, "Let's see if Santa came." Like, he'd look around the hallway and say, "I don't see any evidence that he's been here." And then he'd walk into the dining room, and he would disappear. And we'd hear him go, "Well, mm, no, nothing in here."

And we're up there, going like, "It's the dining room. There's nothing in the dining room!" Goes into this kind of side little sitting room and same thing. He disappears. He does the same shtick of "No, nothing in here." And then he'd say-- inevitably, he'd say, "I don't know if he came."

The first couple years, we were really nervous that maybe Santa did not come. But then after three or four years of this, we were like, "Of course he came. Everything's in the-- go to the family room! Go to the family-- were the tree is, where the fireplace is. Santa's not going to come down and then cart everything into the dining room."

Girl

Dad, you idiot! Go to the family room!

Boy

Family room! Family room! Go to the-- [GROAN]

Dad

Nothing in here.

Girl

Oh, my god! Dad, I will kill you! Please let us down the stairs!

Dad

Maybe I'll go look up in the attic.

Boy

What's wrong with you? What's wrong with you? It's not going to be in the attic.

Mom

Oh, guys. Your dad's having fun. Come on.

Boy

Point your stupid freshly-shaven face towards the family room.

Man

I want to talk to you guys about your dad.

Boy

OK.

Man

He has Alzheimer's.

Boy

What?

Man

He doesn't know where the presents are.

Mom

That is true. We've been saying he was having fun, but holy hell.

Woman

Scene!

[AUDIENCE CHEERING]

Santa

Ho, ho, ho, come in here, elves.

Elf 1

OK, Mr. Santy Claus.

Santa

Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas.

Elf 2

Thank you again.

Santa

I know you want to tell you something I've never told you about Christmas.

Elf 1

Santa, we've been working for you for 472 years. You're going to have to dig deep in that bag.

Santa

Well, I've told you that it's a magical time of year.

Elf 2

Uh-huh, uh-huh.

Santa

I've told you we give presents to millions of children in the world.

Elf 1

Mm-hm.

Elf 2

We know. We make all that stuff.

Elf 1

Yeah, we do that.

Santa

But I haven't told you Rudolph has cancer. The red nose is--

Elf 1

Why didn't we get him treated? He's had that red nose for so long.

Santa

For years, we just thought it was adorable.

Elf 1

I feel so bad we used to laugh and call him names.

Man

Scene!

Man 1

I have a question. I wonder what you guys think of this. And I think this makes me sound like a bad person. Do you feel like Christmas loses a lot of the joy when you hit an age where you have to start buying presents for other people?

Man 2

I have not hit that age.

Ira Glass

Really?

Woman

1,000% yes.

Man 1

I feel like it takes-- it's like a fun magic thing, and then when you actually have to give back to other people, it becomes such a drag. Such a drag.

Woman

Your parents didn't make you give presents to your siblings?

Man 1

To my sibling? Yeah, I had one brother. Our elementary school rent-- did you guys have this? Our elementary school had a thing that was just bad presents. It's like, you'd go into the gym and be like, oh, you can buy your dad a little screwdriver set, or you can buy your mom a plastic ring. It was all the same stuff. So every year, my brother was just an interchangeable-- like, "I got you the neon flyswatter." "Great, I got you the slap bracelet." You know? And our mom would give us the money anyway.

Man 2

This might sound cynical. My wife and I, we don't give each other Christmas presents, because neither of us believe in holidays.

Woman

You don't believe in them?

Man 2

Well, they're out there.

Woman

Like, they exist.

Man 1

Every 4th of July, do you think a war is breaking out?

Man 2

No, to Chris's point, neither of us like the pressure of having to get a gift. And we just don't like them. So we're just like, "No, we don't want that in our relationship."

Man 3

Well, I'm the opposite. When I grew up, I remember the first presents I bought. And it's still essentially true of me now, is that I'm really excited for people to open the present I found or made for them. And watching them open other people's presents makes me angry. And I just am waiting for them to get to my present.

Man 2

I'm going to walk you back on that one. Are you making a lot of presents?

Man 1

Found or made?

Man 1

Same thing.

Man 3

What is unusual about that?

Man 1

You're a really good person.

Boy

Mom, mom.

Mom

Oh, sweetie.

Boy

I got this for you.

Mom

Oh, sweetie.

Boy

It's a paper puppet.

Mom

Oh. Oh, honey.

Boy

It's a paper puppet.

Mom

Honey.

Boy

What did you get me?

Mom

You know what? Greg, now is not a good time.

Greg

Oh, OK.

Mom

Sorry. Sweet-- Mom's friend, Greg, he might want a paper puppet to play with, too.

Greg

Yeah. Yeah, Greg might want a paper puppet.

Boy

I only made one paper puppet.

Mom

Well, you know what? That's great, honey, because Greg and Mommy are going to share, because sharing is caring.

Boy

Yeah. (SINGING) Sharing is caring.

Mom

OK.

Boy

I want you to share the paper puppet.

Greg

Oh, that's awesome. Yeah, thank you for that. That's nice.

Mom

Greg, you please put on a robe?

Greg

Sure, I guess so.

Mom

OK, sweetie, now remember, we said when Greg's over, we're going to knock on the door and we're not going to come in at 3:00. I love my paper puppet. I love my paper puppet, but it's time to go back to bed, OK, sweetie?

Boy

Can I get in bed with you guys?

Mom

Not a good time, baby. Not a good time.

Greg

And I want to be honest.

Mom

No, maybe not. Not a good time.

Woman

Scene!

Woman

Wait, so probably not use able, but for my own sake, there's two things that we went past that I want to hear. And one is what Greg was going to say when he said, "Can I be honest with you?"

Man

Greg was going to say, "I'm going to be honest. I didn't get you anything. But your present will be a father figure, if you play your cards right."

[AUDIENCE LAUGHS]

Aidy Bryant

You know what? There was no, like, religious factor in my Christmas experience. But it was all about like creating your own magic, I feel like. Like, we had this family tradition where Christmas Eve, everyone had to do one trick, which could be of any sort. And then if you did your trick, you got to open one present before you went to bed.

Man

And now you're a professional performer.

Aidy Bryant

I know. But you know what? Like, all the tricks-- I mean, it was all kinds of things. Like I remember one year, my aunt and uncle timed like a nostril flashlight dance to dueling banjos. And like--

Woman

What?

Jeff

Welcome to the Bryant Family Talent Show. Does anyone want to start?

Woman

I think, Jeff, we've got a real great lineup.

Jeff

Oh, we got a great lineup.

Woman

We're really excited.

Jeff

Great. Big, big, big, big lineup this year.

Woman

But I have to say I've been hearing whisperings from Samantha that she's got a real great talent coming up.

Samantha

It's not ready!

Woman

Oh!

Samantha

It's not ready. It's not ready.

Woman

OK, sweetie. OK.

Samantha

Stall, stall!

Woman

OK, sweetie. It's OK. It's OK, sweetie.

Jeff

All right, we'll just do some banter. We'll do some banter.

Woman

Or we could ask Michael if he's ready.

Michael

Yeah, I'm ready. I've been ready for this all year. I've been waiting for this opportunity all year.

Woman

Michael, I'm going to remind you of the ages of everybody in the family.

Michael

OK. OK.

Woman

All right, so--

Michael

Yeah, I'll remind you of my age. I'm 16, and I'm finally seeing the world for what it is, man. I'm finally seeing the world what it is. I'm 16, man.

Jeff

OK, Michael.

Woman

Michael, Michael.

Jeff

Michael, calm down.

Woman

Michael.

Michael

Yeah.

Jeff

Calm down.

Woman

Michael.

Michael

OK.

Jeff

Calm down. Calm down.

Woman

Michael, relax.

Michael

I'm calm. Who's-- I'm calm. I'm calm!

Woman

Uncurl your fists.

Michael

Who's yelling?

Woman

Uncurl your fists.

Michael

That's just how my hands are comfy.

Jeff

Hey.

Michael

This is how my hands are comfortable.

Woman

Michael?

Michael

What?

Jeff

Are those brass knuckles?

Michael

No, not if you don't hit anybody with them.

Jeff

Michael, put those away.

Michael

They're just interconnected rings.

Woman

We--

Boy

Can I have them? Can I have them?

Michael

Yeah, take them. Do whatever you want with them.

Boy

Cool. (SINGING) Five golden rings.

Michael

Give them back. Give them back. Anything but that. Anything but that.

[AUDIENCE LAUGHS]

Mike Birbiglia

I think one of the things that's really evocative about Christmas and childhood is actually fire. Like, we used to make fires.

Shasheer Zamata

What?

Mike Birbiglia

In the fireplace, where one makes fire.

Sasheer Zamata

You said "we" like every-- like it's a common experience.

Man

Like collectively we all associate Christmas with fire.

Aidy Bryant

I agree with Mike, where we always had like a big, beautiful fireplace where we would kind of gather around. But my parents remodeled their house when I was probably 11 a little bit. And they redid the fireplace, and it was like all these river rocks. Gorgeous, I know.

But they were, like, fake, you know? I mean, you couldn't tell that if you went, except for there's still to this day one at the very top that's deflated. It's like this deflated river rock. And so in all our Christmas pictures, it's all of us seated in front of the fireplace, and hanging above us is this weird, indented, sort of like light gray river rock.

Tami Sagher

Um, what's a river rock?

Aidy Bryant

Oh, I'm sorry. I was born and raised in the desert. So we're always searching for rivers. No, it's just-- they're like rounded rocks.

Tami Sagher

So they couldn't get real ones? They had to get fake ones?

Aidy Bryant

Whoa, burn. Taking my family to task.

Sasheer Zamata

Also, is it full of air? Like, why is it deflated?

Aidy Bryant

Look, I didn't build it. I just-- I frickin' lived it.

Mom

Aidy, can you come here for a sec, sweetie?

Aidy

Mm-hmm.

Mom

Loved hearing you on the radio.

Aidy

OK.

Mom

I have to say, your dad and I got real sad though with what story you had to tell.

Aidy

Um, I guess I-- I don't know. They chose that one. I did a ton of other nice stories.

Mom

Did you talk about what happened when we gave you a four-foot St. Bernard stuffed toy?

I'm going to stop this scene.

Dad

Really, why? Why, you don't want to hear our opinions on how your hip, tight-pants friends don't like our rocks? Your hip friends with the tight pants?

Mom

They act like they don't know what a rock is.

Dad

They act they like they don't know what a rock is. Oh, because you say "river," you don't know it's just a rock.

Man

Hey, I heard your daughter on the radio.

Dad

Yeah.

Man

We're avid-- Teresa and I are avid listeners to the public radio station here in Arizona. And it was very disappointing to hear that your family is an embarrassing family.

Woman

Scene!

Man

I will say the thing that was particularly special about Christmas-- because when I try to analyze what it is that made me experience this absolute euphoria in these two days is that my dad was there. My dad's a doctor, you know, which is wonderful. You know, he's a great doctor.

But there would be no two days in the year for sure when I would know that he would be around for those two days. And it was like-- there was something where there was this joy of the full family that I'll never forget.

Man

Kids, kids, line up. Daddy's going to be here today. He's going to be here today.

Boy

Promise? You promise? There's nothing that could stop that, right?

Man

No, he's coming. Today is the day. He wrote us. He told us. He phoned. Everything's all set.

Girl

Oh, man. I'm going to get love from him. I'm going to get advice from him. I'm going to get a spanking from them, because I've been bad.

Girl 2

I have so many questions to ask him that will shape how I view men.

Boy

I'm just going to quietly observe him and then mimic him subtly forever.

Girl 1

I'm so excited!

Boy

I can't wait!

Man

Oh, here he comes.

Girl 2

Oh, Dad!

Boy

Dad!

Ira Glass

Kids. Tammy, Aidy, what's your name? Sasheer? Something with an S.

Man

It's Samantha. I'm your wife.

Boy

Dad, Dad, look at my awards!

Ira Glass

Very nice.

Girl 1

Dad, spank me! I stole two years ago!

Ira Glass

I just don't see why we have to go crazy like this. I don't see why we all have to go so crazy.

Girl 2

Because we miss you!

Boy

You're never around!

Girl 2

Dad, if I got all As, would you be around more? I've been throwing up, Dad.

Man

Don't they look good, though? Don't they look good? They look all clean, and they're posture is very good. Just like you like it. Just like you like it.

Boy

Dad, I appreciate that you work for Federal Express and that you guys will deliver packages 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Girl 2

Plus you were on that island for a couple of years.

Boy

But you're just never around for us! We just want to hug you for an hour.

Man

Oh, my god. Don't say that out loud. Don't--

Ira Glass

I just think that-- you just need to understand that I love you all, but I'm just very busy, just very, very busy--

Man

Oh, let them hug you, please.

Girl 1

No, it's OK, Mom. Dad's too busy for a hug.

Man

Thomas, look at their faces.

Girl 2

It's OK, Mom. I don't deserve to be touched.

Girl 3

Sometimes I just send an empty package, hoping that you'll bring it back.

[AUDIENCE LAUGHS]

Boy

Dad, I just want you to know I can sense the emotional distance you're keeping. And someday I plan on replicating and furthering it.

Ira Glass

All right. I'll see you all next year.

Boy

Oh. Dad.

Man

There he goes.

Boy

You know what I just noticed, Dad? It's like you're inverse Santa Claus. Like, Santa Claus brings kids packages one day a year, and then you never see him again. And we only see you today, and then you bring people packages every other day.

Man

And we watch as the dad gets into his FedEx truck, and he drives off into the distance. And the kids notice that the FedEx truck flies into the air!

[KIDS OOHING]

Man

Scene.

[APPLAUSE]

Ira Glass

Our Christmas improvisers, in alphabetical order-- Scott Adsit, Mike Birbiglia, Aidy Bryant, Chris Gethard, Tami Sagher, and Sasheer Zamata.

Coming up, normally responsible adults doing stuff that is wrong, just wrong, for Christmas. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Two: Oily Potter and The Gobble of Fire

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 program, "Say Yes to Christmas," stories where people embrace possibility, try something different, because that is how you get back to the feeling of wonder that children have at Christmas when everything is so new. We have arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, "Oily Potter and the Gobble of Fire."

One of our producers, Stephanie Foo, recently discovered a Christmas tradition that's still pretty new in our country that, no kidding, brought her joy, no kidding, made the world seem like a bigger, more wonderful place to her. She has this report.

Stephanie Foo

I don't remember how I stumbled on my very first turkey explosion video. But I do remember everything else about it. The video is called "Why you should never deep fry a frozen turkey." Two firefighters are standing at the ready in front of a fire truck on a lawn somewhere. In front of them stands a large pot full of hot oil and a propane burner. Another firefighter in full gear comes out with a raw, pink turkey hanging from the end of a long stick.

He lowers the turkey into the pot. It's totally submerged in oil. And then the oil bubbles and overflows, spilling everywhere, and a couple of fireballs even burst out of the pot in gusts. And then, just when you think it's over, here comes the best part.

[OIL SIZZLING]

Suddenly, an enormous, 20-foot column of fire blasts out of the pot, like Sauron himself has been conjured by way of poultry sacrifice. I watched it again and again. Then, I pulled in my coworker--

Stephanie Foo

Sean, come here.

Sean Cole

What?

Stephanie Foo

Come here.

--Sean Cole, to watch with me another time.

Sean Cole

Oh, my god.

Stephanie Foo

Whoa!

Sean Cole

Oh, wow!

Stephanie Foo

[LAUGHS EXCITEDLY] Oh, my god.

Sean Cole

That was great.

Stephanie Foo

It's just so pleasurable.

Sean Cole

[LAUGHS]

Stephanie Foo

I saw in the "up next column" in YouTube that there were more videos like this, turkey fryer fire safety PSAs put out by fire departments across the country. We stopped counting at 150 videos. They come from Tucson to Pensacola to Danville, California, all made to demonstrate the dangers of deep frying. A lot of the videos were clearly done as segments for local TV stations.

But some departments employ different theatrical methods to amp up the drama on the PSAs. Some use slow mo.

[OIL SLOWLY SIZZLING]

Some play epic music as you watch closeups of the pot of oil.

[EPIC MUSIC PLAYING]

Some spray water in the pot, obviously something you should never do with a grease fire, as it doubles the size of the flames. William Shatner even stars in one video titled "Eat, Fry, Love," created by State Farm. In it, he's playing the inept chef.

William Shatner

I want a moister, tastier turkey. I want a deep-fried turkey.

Stephanie Foo

And there's a dubstep remix.

[DUBSTEP MUSIC PLAYING]

William Shatner

(SINGING) I want a deep-fried turkey. I want a moister, tastier turkey. I want a deep-fried turkey.

Stephanie Foo

Amazingly, this was also released by State Farm.

William Shatner

(SINGING) There's a hunger. I was young and arrogant. Blinded by my hunger, I ignored safety. I want a deep-fried turkey. I want a moister, tastier, turkey.

Stephanie Foo

Then there are the jackass videos--

[OIL SIZZLING]

Woman

Whoa!

Man

Oh, my god.

Stephanie Foo

--where regular people, without safety gear, lower turkeys into deep fryers, sometimes from alarming heights, underneath trees and basketball hoops. Of course, there's a sub-genre here of people who actually wind up getting their decks on fire and fly into a panic. Just saying-- your average turkey fire incident injures four people-- four-- because it's a spectator sport, which is why fire departments do these videos every year.

But after my seventh time watching "Why You Should Never Deep Fry a Turkey," it occurred to me that there's another reason why they do them. I noticed one of the firefighters standing in the back. He was barely suppressing a grin. I zoomed in on him, watched it again-- definitely a grin. So I called him to ask about it. His name is Lieutenant Daniel Akerman of the Escambia County Fire Rescue.

Daniel Akerman

Definitely one of the highlights of being in the office. When you actually drop that turkey, you're not 100% sure how it's going to come out.

Stephanie Foo

Here's some of the guys from the Fargo Fire Department. They have one of my favorite videos.

Stephanie Foo

Hi.

Man

Hello.

Man

Hi.

Stephanie Foo

Do all of you guys like setting turkeys on fire?

[LAUGHTER]

Man

Yeah, you're doing the opposite of what you're supposed to be doing. You're supposed to be putting out fire, but you get to start one.

Man

Yeah, it's fun.

Stephanie Foo

What's your favorite part about the flaming turkey tradition?

Man

Making as big a fireball as you can.

Man

Oh, yeah.

Stephanie Foo

And they're good at it. Fargo's fireball is two stories tall.

[FIRE HISSING]

Stephanie Foo

Your explosion is huge.

Man

Yeah.

Stephanie Foo

What is happening where you are able to get it to be so big?

Man

Sure. Well, we're not following any of the safety recommendations to get it to be that dramatic to show people absolute worst case what can happen.

Stephanie Foo

Did you guys practice?

Man

Yeah. We did find out through practice that the more oil we put in the pot, by filling it to the top, made the fireball as big as possible.

Stephanie Foo

Quick science lesson. These frozen turkeys are filled with ice. Ice, of course, is water. And water does not mix with oil. So when the turkeys hit the oil, that ice turns to water turns to steam, which pushes the oil out of the pot, and when that hits the flame underneath, boom.

So your basic turkey frying don'ts are as follows. One, don't put in a frozen turkey. You should thaw your turkey 24 hours for every five pounds. That's three whole days for a 15-pounder. Two, don't put in a wet turkey or a too-big turkey. Three, don't overfill the pot with oil or overheat the oil. Four, do not do this inside. And lastly, most fire departments would tell you the most important don't is just please, don't deep fry a turkey at all.

Fargo double did all the don'ts. Like, while some firefighters heat their demonstration pots to 350, Fargo took theirs to 700. The pot of oil is obviously already in flames and overflowing before the turkey gets anywhere near it, like an active volcano.

I managed to find the first turkey fire video from 2002. It's called "Turkey Fryer-- Your Dinner for Your Life?" It's hosted by this earnest guy in a hardhat named John Drengenberg, who was not in it for the fun, the fame, or the fireballs. I asked him, is he proud of being the originator of this new holiday tradition, the turkey explosion video?

John Drengenberg

OK, first of all, I'm an engineer. So they aren't explosions.

Stephanie Foo

Oh, OK. I'm sorry.

John Drengenberg

OK.

Stephanie Foo

So what would the appropriate terminology be?

John Drengenberg

Flaming oil is being expelled from the turkey fryer.

Stephanie Foo

So how do you feel about being the originator of the tradition of flaming turkey oil videos?

John Drengenberg

It's not unusual. It's in keeping with our mission of alerting people to safety issues.

Stephanie Foo

Sure. But you know, outside of the mission, what does it make you feel?

John Drengenberg

Like we've accomplished a goal of alerting people to the dangers.

Stephanie Foo

John works for Underwriters Laboratories. They test products to make sure they're safe. I just walked over to the part of our office that has a toaster and a coffee grinder, and I found UL logos on everything, even the light bulbs. And so when John started testing turkey deep fryers at UL in 2002, he found them so egregiously dangerous and prone to failure that they put out a press release calling for stronger turkey fryer guidelines. And because most people don't read press releases, he figured they had to make a PSA informing people about those dangers, too, because John sees danger around us all the time. And he does not think the turkey videos are sensationalistic in the slightest.

John Drengenberg

I think we tried to show the reality. Even if you're using it correctly, and a dog runs by it or it could bump into the stand and knock the turkey fryer down, which would cause some very serious burns on a pet, as well as a child.

Stephanie Foo

Do your friends and family ever-- are you, like, calling them out and being like, please don't do that. And are they like, oh, come on. Just chill out about it. It's fine.

John Drengenberg

Well, the fact is they call me Mr. Safety. And I've actually cut a cord off my mother-in-law's fan, because it was so-- the cord was all ratty. And you know, it was cracked. The insulation was cracked, and there was bare wire on it. And I said, you can't plug this fan in. And she said, well, I need it. It keeps me cool. And I said, it's not good for you. So I unplugged it myself and I cut the cord off so she--

Stephanie Foo

Why didn't you just take the fan?

John Drengenberg

Well, I could have done that.

Stephanie Foo

So you're a bit of a worrier.

John Drengenberg

Well, I've got a bit of experience in the field of product safety.

Stephanie Foo

Do you have any other really important holiday cautionary tips for us before I let you go?

John Drengenberg

Make sure your smoke alarm is working. Make sure you water your tree. You have to run your hand along on the branches in the tree lot to make sure you don't end up with a handful of needles. If you do, the tree is too dry. You should never bring it home. There are statistics you can get, by the way, Stephanie, from places like the Consumer Product Safety Commission on just how many people are injured each year while decorating. I mean, it's like 18,000 people hurt themselves decorating.

Stephanie Foo

Oh, my god.

John Drengenberg

Yeah, we could talk for two hours, if you'd like, about cautionary tips.

Stephanie Foo

Jeez, well, why even celebrate at all?

John Drengenberg

Oh, that's-- we're not grinches here. We just want to keep people safe. That's our mission, whatever your holiday. And it's not just Christmas. It's Hanukkah. It's Kwanzaa, all of that. And all of those holidays, by the way, use candles.

Stephanie Foo

[LAUGHS]

John Drengenberg

You want go into candles? You ready for candles? Can you handle it?

Stephanie Foo

John suggests that in lieu of candles this year, try using LED tealights instead. And if you think that's too drastic, please go to YouTube right now and type in the words "Christmas tree fires." And then help John have a Merry Christmas. Go water your tree.

Ira Glass

Stephanie Foo is one of the producers of our program. We checked, by the way, with the Consumer Product Safety Commission and learned that on average, there were only about 13-- 13-- turkey fryer-related incidents a year, which means one of two things, OK? Either number one, the hundreds of turkey fryer fire videos online are unnecessary. Or, number two, the hundreds of turkey fryer fire videos online are working.

Act Three: The First Noel

Ira Glass

Act Three, "The First Noelle." Andre is six years old. And this is his first Christmas with, you know, Santa and presents and the whole deal. And already, it's been like one incredible thing after another. Till recently, he and his little brother, Luke, who's four, had been in an orphanage in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And in the orphanage, Christmas was not much of a thing.

But now they're living outside Seattle, where it definitely is a thing. Weeks ago, Christmas lights started popping up.

Jennefer

And they would point to that and say, Mom, Mom, look at that. And so we started to explain, yeah, that's for Christmas. It's to celebrate Christmas.

Ira Glass

This is Jennefer. She and her husband adopted Andre and Luke.

Jennefer

And then we drove through the neighborhood, just with the purpose of looking for lights, they were just non-stop. It didn't matter how big the light display was. They were amazed.

Child

Wow! Wow!

Child

But look at Snoopy!

Child

Bye!

Child

Snoopy!

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

This is obviously from a recording they made on that drive. Jennefer and her husband also have two little girls, seven and five, who you can hear on the recording.

[KIDS OOHING AND AHHING]

Man

Do you see two of them in the [INAUDIBLE]?

Child

Whoa.

Jennefer

And no one wanted to go home. They just couldn't get enough of it.

Child

Whoa.

Ira Glass

It's been kind of a crash course since the boys arrived in the States. They just got here this November. They'd heard some Christmas basics before. This adoption process has taken three years. And Jennefer lived with the boys in Kinshasa for most of this year, and she talked about Christmas a little bit with the boys. But you know, if you think about it, it is a lot to cover. With her girls, you know, from the time that they could speak, they were basically living in a world with Christmas and Santa and all that, but with the boys--

Ira Glass

It must have been strange for you. You really have to start at the beginning and walk through a whole lot of stuff. And it's like, there's reindeer, and there's like this whole-- it's really like kind of a lot to explain, right?

Jennefer

Right, yeah. We had to hit a lot of basics. Who is Rudolph? Who is even Santa? I mean, the fact that we had a Christmas tree in our house, oh. And even that we went to pick out a Christmas tree and then tied this tree onto our car-- you know, the little things that we just do every year so we don't really think about it as strange. But when you were a kid and you see a tree tied to a car, or you're tying it to your own car, he'd be like, "Why? What are they doing to the tree? Why are they putting it on the roof?" And we opened up the sunroof while he was in there, just the window part so he could see it. And he just stared at it in awe.

Ira Glass

One of the recordings you made is of, I guess, Andre saying over and over, "Are you kidding me, guys? Are you kidding me, guys? Are you kidding me, guys?" What's that about?

Jennefer

Yeah, he kept opening new ornaments and seeing a new ornament. We have a tradition in our family that we hang up an ornament with a picture of each child each year. So they were both really excited to see their own faces on ornaments as they hung them up. So--

Andre

Are you kidding me, guys? Are you kidding me, guys? Are you kidding me, guys?

Jennefer

His English is so new, so he usually uses that when he sees something that he really likes.

Ira Glass

Growing up in the orphanage, not only did they not have ornaments and trees and Santa, they didn't get presents-- not for Christmas, not for birthdays.

Jennefer

Yeah, you know, they didn't really have belongings before. Everything was shared at the orphanage.

Ira Glass

Neither of them ever asked anybody for a gift or picked out a present to give to somebody. That's all new.

Of course, Christmas is just one of the new things that they're experiencing in their new lives in this country. The orphanage that they lived in was on the outskirts of Kinshasa and didn't have electricity or running water. Even going to a store was a new experience for the boys when they joined Jennefer's family.

Jennefer

Everything's amazing right now, so it's not hard to believe that Santa comes and brings you gifts. That's just one of the many things.

Ira Glass

Compared with the incredibleness of, you know, living in a house with water that comes out of faucets, and a play room, and a family, Santa Claus, the idea of Santa Claus, that's just really just like one more thing on the list, right? A guy flies in with a sleigh in the middle of the night with a bag of presents? Why not? It's all kind of amazing if we just let ourselves see it that way.

Credits

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Jonathan Menjivar, with Zoe Chace, Sean Cole, Neil Drumming, Stephanie Foo, Chana Joffe-Walt, Miki Meek, Robyn Semien, Alyssa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Brian Reed. Our editor is Joel Lovell. Julie Snyder is our editorial consultant. Our technical director is Mr. Matt Tierney, who recorded our improv show this week.

Production help from Lily Sullivan. Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon's our production manager. Elise Bergerson is our business operations manager. Elna Baker scouts stories for our show and helped produce our night of improv. Kimberly Henderson is our office coordinator. Research help from Christopher [INAUDIBLE]. Music help from Damien Graef and Rob Geddis.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, ThisAmericanLife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia, who gives me regular critiques of our program. And you know, it always seems he's a little confused by the show.

Woman

(SINGING OFF-KEY) What do you mean? What do you mean by what you're saying?

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Happy holidays, everybody. We'll be back next week with more stories of This American Life.