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699: Fiasco!

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

Hi, everybody. Ira Glass here. So our staff is busy reporting out stories for next week's show and for other upcoming shows. And we had a rerun scheduled for this week, and we decided in this stressful time it might be nice to keep things light and funny. And so that's what this episode is.

And it has not one, but two of the most popular stories we have ever put on the air. The first version of this episode was broadcast over 20 years ago, back when we were distributed by Public Radio International and our episodes began with a little PRI audio logo, which-- I don't know-- I kind of miss.

Boy

From PRI, Public Radio International.

Woman 1

From PRI, Public Radio International.

Man

From PRI, Public Radio International.

Woman 2

Public Radio.

Man

Public--

Woman 3

Radio International.

Man

--Radio International.

Woman 3

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, you 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 they were-- there was certainly a sort of air of everyone sort of 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 sort of cooked around. There was this huge crew. There were lots of things being painted.

Ira Glass

See, but this, in fact, is one of the criteria for greatness, 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, "Fiascos-- 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.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. There is much, much more to learn about fiascos in this hour. Stay with us.

Act One: Opening Night

Ira Glass

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

Jack Hitt

Opening night comes and, you know, well, almost everybody in the area in the 10-mile radius of this theater knows somebody in this production, so the place is pretty much packed. And I don't know if you remember the opening moment of Peter Pan, but it's the three little kids sleeping in their bed. And Peter Pan comes flying in the window. And in this particular production, there's a big bed with all the three kids in it. And off to the left, I remember, is a big, huge wardrobe, and there's a large window there and a little bureau.

And Peter Pan comes in and has a little speech where he says, anybody can fly. Why, with just a little magic dust, one can fly. And Peter Pan sort of sprinkles this magic dust in the air. And sure enough, the kids sort of suddenly just lurch into the air.

Ira Glass

[LAUGHS]

Jack Hitt

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 sort of sailing gracefully to and fro, they sort of hang in the air like puppets, just sort of dangling there and sort of getting jerked up an inch or two or back and forth.

Ira Glass

And then sometimes they're just stationary?

Jack Hitt

Yeah, just hanging there like a spider. And then several of them start to sort of circumscribe these circles in the air, where it's clear that the people running the machines have just sort of set them off on these oval courses that spiral farther and farther out.

[LAUGHTER]

And if you were 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--

Ira Glass

[LAUGHS]

Jack Hitt

--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. We become them.

Jack Hitt

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

[LAUGHTER]

--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 a circle. And the audience sort of sees this coming. And there's a real sense of pain, and gripping of the chair, and white-knuckledness as the kid suddenly does just an enormous splat into the wardrobe. And it's clear that he's hurt.

[LAUGHTER]

And he comes off of it sort of 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 sort of in the workings. He's sort of left the stage itself. He's now up there with the lights. Then all of a sudden, he just sort of--

[LAUGHTER]

Suddenly, he would just plummet back down to the stage and be caught up just before he hit the floor. [LAUGHS] It was hard to watch because, as you can tell, it's an incredibly funny moment. But like I say, the audience was still in this very forgiving mode.

And no one said a word. We just all sat there sort of 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--

Jack Hitt

Yeah.

Ira Glass

--just to say-- 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. And 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 he harms people, and hates children. And it's all that good stuff.

And so Captain Hook is out there. He looks great. He's got one 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.

Ira Glass

Yes.

Jack Hitt

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.

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

He is bad.

Jack Hitt

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

Ira Glass

A tough moment for any actor.

Jack Hitt

Very, very hard.

Ira Glass

If the 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 you're--

[LAUGHTER]

--is that your arm was eaten off by an alligator and that you have to have a--

Jack Hitt

The entire plot--

Ira Glass

--and you have a hook.

Jack Hitt

--stems from that fact.

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.

[LAUGHTER]

Jack Hitt

Captain Hook said, you know, they just don't make those hooks like they used to. That was actually the ad lib. I will never forget it.

[LAUGHTER]

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

Ira Glass

In act two?

Jack Hitt

Yeah, this is act two. And Captain Hook might have stood in front of the set, but you didn't really see it because he spoke from shadow. And now the lights come up, and it's 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-maché mushrooms everywhere of different sizes. It was absolutely wonderful and surreal.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Jack Hitt

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.

Ira Glass

[LAUGHS]

Jack Hitt

And their landing-- 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 sort of 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. Sort of the younger people who were the least forgiving, they started to go first, OK? So the high school students, 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.

Ira Glass

[LAUGHS]

Jack Hitt

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 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.

[LAUGHTER]

This naked light bulb--

Ira Glass

A bare light bulb?

Jack Hitt

--just hangs around, and people are talking to it.

[LAUGHTER]

And I think Tinker Bell-- Tinker Bell must have had an appearance in the first act, but it was somewhere in here that people just started laughing at this.

Ira Glass

[LAUGHS]

Jack Hitt

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-maché 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 water 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.

[LAUGHTER]

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 sort of 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, I mean, 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, the director had decided that she wanted to break down the fourth wall. This was cutting edge theater, as far as she was concerned.

Ira Glass

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

Jack Hitt

That's right, and interact with the audience, and break down that wall, so the idea being that you would get more in touch with the dramatic sense and the reality of what was happening. Anyway, so in this particular scene, what was going to happen was that the Indians were going to throw rope ladders down from the balcony, and climb down these rope ladders into the audience, and move among the audience, and frighten us. Anyway, I knew about this scene because my friend David, who I went to high school with, was in it. So when David was climbing over the top of this balcony to climb down the rope, he lost his footing and fell to the floor from the balcony, a distance of about 15 to 20 feet.

Ira Glass

Oh my god.

Jack Hitt

A good fall.

Ira Glass

That's horrible.

Jack Hitt

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

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

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

[LAUGHTER]

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

Ira Glass

No matter what.

Jack Hitt

So 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. I mean, 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 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, like what kind of release people want, I mean, 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 would disagree with you. See, I think the old theater critics, the ancients, would say that the reason you go to the theater and to see a great production is to be-- I think the word 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. Of course, what happened here was the exact opposite. We get transported directly in touch with our animal being.

Ira Glass

Our baser selves.

Jack Hitt

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

Ira Glass

Jack Hitt, he's the co-host of a great Peabody Award-winning podcast about race and history called Uncivil, which, if you are looking for something to listen to during this national home lockdown or on your commute to your essential job, I really recommend that. Jack says, by the way, that people ask him about this Peter Pan story still, all these years later. In the year since we first ran this, we got a letter from one of the actors in that production that Jack saw, a guy who played a pirate, who told us Jack, quote, "did not go far enough. He only covered the opening night. The subsequent performances were no better."

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

(SINGING) I won't grow up. I don't wanna go to school just to learn to be a puppet and recite a silly rule. If growing up means it would be beneath my dignity to climb a tree, I won't grow up, won't grow up, won't grow up, not me.

Act Two: Squirrel Cop

Ira Glass

Act Two, "Squirrel Cop." Well, human error is often at the heart of a fiasco, but what happens when you combine human error with, what we'll call in this case, animal error? We have this story of a police officer in a suburban community on the East Coast.

Police Officer

There was nothing, nothing going on-- Saturday night in this village, really quiet, super cold. And this call came over for unknown animal in a house. And it was on my post. It was about five minutes away. So myself and another car were assigned the call, and we show up there.

And luckily for me, it was another guy who was pretty new. So we walk up to the door with all our stuff on-- the nylon coat, the vest, the belt, the whole nine yards. And the door opens. And the guy who is behind the door, he's about 30. I was 23 at the time.

He's about 30. He looks like a broker or a lawyer, just really well put together, nice guy, wearing glasses. He's wearing these silk pajamas with a monogram. Got my attention.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Police Officer

And he's going, listen, really sorry to bother you. Normally I'd handle this sort of stuff on my own, but my wife really insisted that I call. And so we ask him what the problem is.

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

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

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

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

Ira Glass

[LAUGHS]

Police Officer

It'll be OK. And she was just, you know, thank you so much. And she was really sweet. And I was struck dead.

So we walk inside. And she goes, I'm going to throw a pot of coffee on. And we go upstairs. We follow the man of the house upstairs. And we're underneath one of those trap doors that goes into the attic with a staircase that folds out.

And we do hear an animal upstairs scratching away, just scuttling around the floor. And there's definitely something up there, and it's making pretty good speed up going from one end of the roof to the other. So I reached up, and I took the trapdoor down. We unfolded the ladder. And I have this big, heavy flashlight, like your cop flashlight-- 4D cells, the metal case, the whole thing.

I shine it up through the hole in there, and it's pretty black. I can see the rafters, but really nothing else around there. And I start up the ladder.

Now the guy who owned the house is standing almost directly underneath me, just to the side of the ladder, looking straight up at me. And my partner's at the base of the ladder, right behind me. So just before I stuck my head through this black hole, I just paused. I crunched my body up underneath 'cause I'm realizing, gee, I don't know where this thing is. The second we pull down the trap door, all noise upstairs just ceased.

So I was kind of nervous. And I was like, well, I look like an idiot just crouched up here on the top of the ladder. So I took the flashlight, and I just popped my head up, turned the light on again. And about six inches from the front of my face was this squirrel at eye level with me, kind of reared back on its legs. And I swear, from where I was standing, it looked like Godzilla.

It just scared the heck out of me. I thought, it's a squirrel. It's going to be hiding somewhere. It's going to be terrified of me. It was six inches away from me.

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

Ira Glass

This is the homeowner?

Police Officer

This is the homeowner. I lose my balance and fall backwards directly onto my partner. And I pancake him.

We're both on our backs. He's on his back. I'm on his stomach on my back, scuttling around like a beetle trying to get up in this really narrow hallway. It's a mess. The squirrel, while we're floundering around in the hallway, jumps down the stairs-- boink, boink, boink-- lands on me, and takes off down the stairs.

Ira Glass

How undignified.

Police Officer

It was terrible. It was terrible.

Ira Glass

[LAUGHS]

Police Officer

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

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Police Officer

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

So the squirrel, when it bolted down the staircase, took off into the living room and ran underneath a couch for cover. So we run downstairs. This guy is bleeding all over the place, on his carpets. His wife looks and says, what have you done to my husband?

I start going, oh, it was an accident. And I just stop in mid-sentence. What's the point? We've only been there about two minutes.

Ira Glass

[LAUGHS]

Police Officer

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

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

Ira Glass

That is so tactical.

Police Officer

Yes. Yeah, I was very proud of myself at that instant, but, you know. I asked her for a box, and she says, sure, we've got boxes. We just moved in. We have nothing but boxes.

She runs out to the garage, and she comes back with a box. And the box is long enough, and it fits across the entire short side of the couch where the armrest would be. So I start sweeping underneath the couch with my nightstick, trying to move the squirrel toward the box, figuring we'll capture it and just get rid of it, and we'll be out of here, and there'll be no more mayhem.

So it's actually working very well, and the squirrel's moving down along. You can hear it. It's chittering. And I'm trying not to hurt it.

I'm nervous about the thing. It might bite me. I don't want to hurt it, really. It's just an animal.

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

Ira Glass

Oh, my.

Police Officer

--and caught on fire, and ran directly back out and directly back under the couch.

Ira Glass

Is it on fire?

Police Officer

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

And my partner and I just don't even talk.

We just grab the couch, heave it upside down, and now there's plenty of oxygen now for the fire to really get going. And it starts up, and we're patting it out. And it's sort of getting away from us. So we grab the only thing that's really available, and those are these really nice silk pillows. And we have one in each hand, both of us, and we're just windmilling away at this fire on the couch. And we put it out, but it's smoking terribly.

It was a disaster. The couch is upside down. The bottom of it is burnt. The house is filling with smoke from the couch.

The squirrel, when it went under the couch, in its death throes, just latched onto the bottom of the couch. It's like this smoking piece of gristle underneath the couch, latched on there with its claws. And we're pounding, smearing it all over the place.

The smoke alarms are firing away. The guy's standing with handkerchiefs and paper towels up around his nose, which is still bleeding. His pajamas are a mess. They're covered with blood, the front of them.

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

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

And then she really just lost it. And he was just looking at us and shaking his head like he couldn't believe that these two idiots showed up and did this to his house over nothing, really. And he just goes, you really haven't done anything wrong. I can't point to any one thing that you did that I have a reason to get angry about. You really haven't done anything wrong. I mean, we did call you, but I just-- I can't thank you for this.

They call for a squirrel. They end up with like $3,000, $4,000 worth of damage and a broken nose. And this is all within about five minutes.

Ira Glass

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

Police Officer

There's always a new mistake to be made. I don't think I would make that particular mistake. I mean, you make plenty of mistakes. You make plenty of mistakes. That's just part of that job. You just try not to make the same one twice.

But there's such variety that you're going to make hundreds. You're going to make thousands of mistakes. You're going to make thousands of mistakes until you really get a handle on what you're doing. And with police work, they afford you plenty of space to make mistakes. But there's things that just either they aren't your responsibility-- if you get involved in things that aren't your responsibility, or that you're really not equipped to handle, or that you don't have a specific plan, a plan that's thought through to a conclusion, you probably should re-evaluate what you're doing.

Ira Glass

Now that you mention that, yeah, that's right. You walk into the house thinking, OK, we'll get the squirrel. Like, where are you going to get the squirrel? What was the best case scenario?

Police Officer

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

Ira Glass

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

Police Officer

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

Ira Glass

Our interviewee, who asked not to be named on the radio, had been on the force for 18 years when he spoke with me.

[MUSIC - "FOX SQUIRREL" BY MUDDY WATERS]

(SINGING) My baby, she got ways like a fox squirrel swinging up in a tree. I know my woman, she got ways like a fox squirrel swinging up in a tree. Well, little darling, [INAUDIBLE]. She kept hopping all over me.

Coming up, what it's like to be invited to a big charity event that you then ruin. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Three: Tragedy Minus Comedy Equals Time

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, fiasco. This is our own inquiry into the nature of what makes a fiasco. When you have left the world of mishaps, stumble human error, and you enter into the much more rarefied realm of fiasco, we have arrived at Act Three of our program-- Act Three, "Tragedy Minus Comedy Equals Time," specifically a long, long time between laughs.

So Mike Birbiglia is a comedian. He's been on our show lots of times. And years ago, years ago, he told this story about this one gig that he did relatively early in his career. He says it was the worst show he's ever done in his life.

Mike Birbiglia

It happened this year. I was asked to perform at a charity golf tournament in New Jersey. So I woke up for this charity golf event. And I realized recently that I'm not a good adult yet. I think if you're a good adult, you plan your outfit according to what will occur when you leave the house. But I don't have that part of my brain. I'm just like, one outfit forever!

[LAUGHTER]

So when I played golf, I brought my brother, Joe. And Joe's kind of like a bad entourage member. He's never like, you the man, Mike. He's always like, I don't know what Dad would think about this, and do you think they have any more shrimp-- that kind of thing. But we showed up to play golf, and they paired us up with these two other people. It was a celebrity tournament, and people were like, who do you think our celebrity's going to be?

[LAUGHTER]

And Joe and I were like, yeah, who do you think our celebrity is going to be? And then I'm like, oh, no. I think it might be me. And then I'm apologizing to these people. I'm like, I'm really sorry I'm your celebrity. If you think this is disappointing for you, you can't imagine how I feel.

So I'm apologizing the whole day. And then at the end of the day, sure enough, my pants are all wrinkled, and I have to perform at this semi-formal banquet. And I'm like, what about one outfit forever? I thought that was a good plan.

And so here's what I do. As damage control, I go to the locker room to iron my own pants. And yeah, it's a pretty good plan. And I find an iron, but I couldn't find a board. So I take off my pants. I'm just ironing them on a bench in the locker room in my underwear, which is a dead giveaway that these are my only pants.

[LAUGHTER]

So I'm ironing my pants. And I put them on. And I go up to the event. And this is where the trouble really begins. It's important for me, before I tell you this part of the story, to remind you that you're on my side.

[LAUGHTER]

I say to the woman in charge-- I go, what's the format of the show? And she goes, well, there's two speakers, and then you, and then a raffle. And I was like, well, that's exciting because I've never opened for a raffle. I'm trying to stay optimistic. And I'm sitting in the back of the room with my brother, Joe. And the first speaker comes on the stage, and he's an 11-year-old boy who survived leukemia.

[AUDIENCE EXCLAIMING]

I know.

[LAUGHTER]

He's not funny at all.

[LAUGHTER]

He focuses primarily on the leukemia, and everyone is crying. Literally everyone is crying. I'm even crying in the back of the room for two reasons-- one, the kid, and two, for me because I have to perform comedy. And it gets worse because Joe leans over, and he goes, this ain't looking so good, Mike.

[LAUGHTER]

I said, I concur.

[LAUGHTER]

The second speaker was Hall of Fame quarterback Phil Simms. And yeah.

Audience

Whoo!

Mike Birbiglia

He's got one fan here.

[LAUGHTER]

But he's a broadcaster. And he gives an amazing, inspiring speech. And he even sprinkles in a few jokes about golf. They were similar to jokes I had thought of about golf that day. It was like watching the last drops of my joke canteen drip out onto a desert of cancer.

[LAUGHTER]

He gets a standing ovation, which he should have. Clearly the show is over. Surely there can't be anyone more famous than Hall of Fame quarterback Phil Simms. But wait, there was. It was Mike Birbiglia, who had no business being at this event.

I know there are some entertainers who might have risen to the challenge, and I would love to be one of those entertainers, but I am not. As a matter of fact, I have a habit in my life of making awkward situations even more awkward. I've said this before, but a few years ago I was moving a new bed into my apartment. And this woman who lived in the building opened the front door for me with her key. And she goes, I'm not worried because a rapist wouldn't have a bed like that.

That's how she started the conversation. Now, what I should have said was nothing. What I did say was, you'd be surprised.

[LAUGHTER]

There's nothing you can say after that. You're just like, see you around the building, that kind of thing. I've thought about this a lot, and I think there's something wrong with my brain, where I don't have an on-deck circle for ideas. It's just batter up.

And a lot of the ideas are bad. And they're at the plate going, I don't know about this one, Mike. And I just turn into this drunk Little League dad. I'm like, you go take some cuts, son.

[LAUGHTER]

As a comedian, when people laugh, it's very exciting. It's a very neat thing. And when they don't, it feels like you're performing jazz because they're kind of bobbing their head and looking to the side. And sometimes that's OK. I'm like, I like jazz.

But then I get worried because I'm like, sometimes jazz sucks. What if I'm the Kenny G of comedy? What if I think I sound like this, like-- [JAZZ SOUNDS]

--and, in fact, I sound like this-- (SINGING) Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na. So I'm onstage at the charity golf tournament, and I'm just Kenny G'ing it up, for 10 minutes, just-- [SINGING OFF KEY]

--just blowing that horn. And I don't want to fail. I mean, that's a really important point in this story is that these are good people. And I want to succeed for them, but I just can't.

And so I think to myself, why don't I cater my material to this specific event? And everyone has been talking about cancer.

[AUDIENCE EXCLAIMING AND LAUGHING]

I know. I'm in the future also.

[LAUGHTER]

[APPLAUSE]

I had that thought on stage for about one second and then batter up. I said to the audience-- true story, I said I went to the doctor, and they told me there was something in my bladder. And whenever they tell you that, it's never anything good-- like, we found something in your bladder, and it's season tickets to the Yankees!

[LAUGHTER]

That was the response I was hoping for. At that point, I just threw in the towel. I mean, I was just devastated. I thanked the audience and apologized simultaneously, which I've never done. I was like, thank you. Sorry for ruining your event. And I just kind of walked off.

And I was so upset. And I walked over to Joe. And I go, Joe, we are leaving now. And that's when Joe said, and I quote, "Mike, I can't. They're just about to start the raffle."

[LAUGHTER]

[APPLAUSE]

"And because everybody left, my odds are amazing."

[LAUGHTER]

And that is the worst show I have ever done in my entire life. Yeah.

[CHEERING AND APPLAUSE]

Ira Glass

Mike Birbiglia. His most recent Netflix special is called The New One. And he's organized these funny videos to raise money for people who work at comedy clubs, who, of course, are now out of work. John Mulaney, Maria Bamford, Roy Wood Jr., and many other very funny people do these with him. You can find them at tipyourwaitstaff.com.

[MUSIC - "I STARTED A JOKE" BY BEE GEES]

(SINGING) I started a joke, which started the whole world crying. But I didn't see that the joke was on me, oh, no.

Act Four: Fiascos As A Force For Good

Ira Glass

Act Four, "Fiascos As A Force for Good." George Clooney, Barbra Streisand, Jennifer Aniston, Vidal Sassoon, Jodie Foster, Jason Momoa, Brad Pitt, Keanu Reeves, Sharon Stone, and John Travolta, also George Burns, Bob Hope, Gene Kelly, Gena Rowlands, also Quentin Tarantino, John Waters, Nora Ephron-- Margy Rochlin has interviewed all these people. She's written big feature stories for all sorts of big magazines and newspapers.

But the very, very first big feature assignment that she was actually sent out on was by a publication in 1982, The Los Angeles Reader. They sent out a very nervous, very youthful Margy Rochlin to interview Moon Unit Zappa. Remember her? Daughter of Frank Zappa.

Margy Rochlin

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

Ira Glass

She is 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.

[LAUGHTER]

I'm going to go speak to her in the valley language, and we will bond.

[MUSIC - "VALLEY GIRL" BY FRANK AND MOON UNIT ZAPPA]

(SINGING) Like, oh my god.

Valley girl.

Like, totally.

Valley girl.

Encino is, like, so bitchin'.

Valley girl.

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 that 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

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

Margy Rochlin

Yes.

Margy Rochlin

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

Moon Unit Zappa

Bowling alleys with big arcades are very popular.

Margy Rochlin

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.

Margy Rochlin

Kirkwood's is gone. It's now the sports center.

Moon Unit Zappa

Oh, it's the same thing?

Margy Rochlin

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

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

Ira Glass

Shooting out your nose?

Margy Rochlin

Shooting right out my nose.

Moon Unit Zappa's Mother

Are you OK? Put your hands up.

Margy Rochlin

[COUGHING]

Margy Rochlin

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 sort of chasing me. And at a certain point, she got behind me, and she gave me the Heimlich maneuver.

Moon Unit Zappa's Mother

Wait. Put your arms up. OK?

Moon Unit Zappa

Let's do the Heimlich maneuver. Oh, god.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

Ira Glass

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

[LAUGHTER]

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

[LAUGHS]

Now, what happened after that?

Margy Rochlin

It was sort of like we'd 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 mean, I really felt like a little sister of mine had a loss. And the starting point was--

Ira Glass

That moment.

Margy Rochlin

That moment.

Ira Glass

Yeah. 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 can be a force not just for chaos, and for entropy, and for evil, but, in fact, that can be a force for good. It can bring people together.

Margy Rochlin

Right. It was actually this huge success to me. I'd never been sent out under these kind of circumstances before. And I remember we beat the local paper. The Herald Examiner followed us a week later. 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 her put together.

Ira Glass

Of valley speak terms?

Margy Rochlin

Of valley speak 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--

Margy Rochlin

Happened-- yeah.

Ira Glass

Happened after squirting the coffee through your nose.

Margy Rochlin

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

(SINGING) It's, like, so bitchin' because, like, everybody's, like, super, super nice. It's like, so bitchin'.

Margy Rochlin

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.

Moon Unit Zappa

Ready, ready to the max. I'm sure. It's, like, really nauseating. Like, barf out. Gag me with a spoon. Gross. I am sure. Totally.

Ira Glass

Margy Rochlin. She covers television, podcasts, food, and film in Los Angeles.

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

(SINGING) Don't look at her way. It's how she gets around. You are damaged and shaken, but you're still in control as far as they know.

Credits

Ira Glass

Today's program was produced by Nancy Updike and myself, with Paul Tough, Alix Spiegel, and Julie Snyder. Contributing editors for today's program-- Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, and Consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help for this rerun from Noor Gill, Stowe Nelson, and Matt Tierney. 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. He used to walk into the studio at the end of each and every episode to grimly assess the damage.

Police Officer

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

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

(SINGING) You are damaged and shaken, but you're still in control as far as they know. What did they, what'd they say, do you know what I mean? Do ya? Do ya? Do ya?

Oh, great honey. Get you into the show. Oh, don't worry, honey. Always knows the showman.