TAL Theme List

Here's the latest from the folks at This American Life. Pitch away!


Dear This American Life friends and contributors,

We've got a new round of themes-in-progress and we're coming to you for story pitches, thoughts and suggestions for our upcoming shows.

How this process works: When you send in a story idea to me, I'll respond with a generic email letting you know that I received your pitch and that I've read it. I promise. I read every pitch. (I won't send you the auto response until I've read your pitch so expect a bit of a delay getting that email.) If we think the pitch is right for us, or if we need more information from you, I'll send you another email asking for more info on the story or letting you know we'd like to commission the story. But if you don't hear back from us within two weeks, beyond the initial auto-reply email, it means the story just isn't right for us or for the needs of that particular show. The idea of doing it this way is just to get through pitches and get back to everyone a little more quickly.

Like always, these themes are shows we're actively pursuing right now but we're always on the lookout for new stories or ideas. So if you've got a story that you think would work especially well for us but doesn't fit a specific theme listed below, please send it along anyway.

Thanks so much for your pitches. All of us here are very appreciative.


FATHER’S DAY 2011: We’re a little under-the-gun getting this show together in time for Father’s Day (June 19th, in case you were wondering when to mail your card) so we’re mainly looking for stories that won’t take too long to produce. Interviews, essays, small documentaries would be great. But, basically, we’re looking for stories that, of course, feature dads but also comment in a larger way about what it means to be a dad – in good ways and bad. We’ve done a couple Father’s Day shows over the years and some successful stories have simply been about dads who tried to go above and beyond in their parenting efforts –sometimes they succeeded and sometimes they didn’t. We now have two really nice stories for this show but both stories are kind of bummers, in a way, so a story about a dad doing something nice, heroic, impressive, etc, would be really great for this show. Or maybe a story about a dad doing something unexpected – both to his kids and to himself. An overachieving dad? Or a dad who has/had an interesting philosophy about fatherhood? We’re also thinking about putting together two short segments for the show – one idea is a series of people (the “children”) talking about touching, emotional or affecting moments with their dads that they think their dads are unaware of; another segment could about various types of fatherly advice – the weirder, the sweeter, the misinformed, the better. If you remember any particular gems from either your own dad or friends’ dads, or moments with your own dads, will you let us know?

BREAKTHROUGH: This was originally a show about the search for a cure for cancer but we’ve decided to now make it a show about breakthroughs, discoveries and realizations of all kinds. One story we’re working on now is about the early days of natural gas exploration in Pennsylvania, and how those discoveries have affected research and development at national universities. We’re interesting in more stories about scientific breakthroughs with surprising consequences, but we’re also interested in stories of small, personal breakthrough moments. Maybe a story about a person conquering a fear or phobia – a fear of flying or of heights or something more unusual. Maybe a story about resolving a problem or dispute – two opposing sides coming to a truce. Another type of story could be a breakthrough that solved a crime, like a break in a case or something similar. Stories of smaller or more personal breakthrough moments would work best if there were surprising consequences.

A HOUSE DIVIDED: Stories where some kind of group who is usually very functional and civil (think family, or corporation or, in one example, the state of Wisconsin), finds itself in a circumstance where everyone takes sides. And where taking sides can even threaten to shove a portion of that group out. The idea of the theme is very Last Straw or Boiling Point. For example, we have one story about the recent recall petitions filed against 9 Wisconsin senators (6 Republicans, 3 Democrats), in a move that is so atypical of Wisconsin’s easygoing politics, that it leaves us wondering what the hot tempers are really all about. We have a couple of big institution stories in the plans for this show, so a story about an actual family feud or something more personal would be really nice.

REALITY SHOWS: We’re aware that talking about reality shows is a little late-90s but we’re now coming across so many stories where the engine of the story – the goals or the stakes – is simply the desire to either make or be cast on a reality show. The “reality show” as a plot device in stories is now taking the place of wanting to strike it rich or wanting to find love or wanting eternal life. It’s just understood that, of course, you’d do crazy, nefarious stuff and possibly go to extreme lengths because, in the end, you might get a reality show out of it. And, we’ve found, these types of stories can be really fun. We’re currently working on one story about a wannabe reality show private detective agency that actually gets involved in very real, very scary and very criminal work. We’re looking for more stories about the making of reality shows that take an unexpected turn or have surprising consequences for the contestants. We’d also love great reality show ideas. The difficulty of doing stories about reality shows, though, is that we’re often left wondering “what does this even mean?” So if you have a story or a thought about how reality shows can mean something larger, that’d be great.

THE SUBURBS: One of our producers was recently in a car with a friend of hers, driving down the wide streets and past the big box stores of a Chicago suburb when, both at the same time, our producer said “God, I could never live here” and her friend said “God, this would be so easy.” It’s that tension between a more livable life and the idea of the soul-crushing homogeneity of the suburbs that can be so interesting. Sometimes the darkest stories take place in the suburbs and often suburban life can run counter to what you’d expect. We’re looking for stories about things that can either only take place in a suburb or, conversely, shockingly took place in a suburb. One story we’re pursuing now is about a 21 Jump Street-type of undercover police sting at a suburban high school in Florida that set the town on fire. We may focus the show entirely on crime in the suburbs so if you have suburban crime stories, that’d be great. But we may also keep the more general theme, in which case historical stories about suburbs and how they came to be would be good but also stories about truly suburban events or politics or relationships could work, too.

AMUSEMENT PARK: We’ve done a few shows in the past where all of the stories are located in one place – for instance, a Rest Stop show set at a New York Thru-way rest stop, a show several years ago set at a 24 hour diner in Chicago – and we’re hoping to do another show like that this summer set at an amusement park. We’re still in the very early stages of planning this out and figuring out logistics and permissions but if you have thoughts or suggestions for this show, we’d really appreciate it. We might also set part of the show gathering day-in-the-life type of documentary stories at the park but also have part of the show with essays or short fiction about working at amusement parks or an event that happened at an amusement park and things like that. So if you have any interesting, emotional or funny stories about amusement parks, let us know.

SUMMER FLING: It’s possible this show and the Amusement Park show will join together but our hope for now is that the shows could be separate. We don’t have any particular stories yet for this show but we have a wish list of stories for this show. A classic “summer fling” story would be great – maybe something just really romantic or funny or time or place-specific? An unlikely summer fling? But we also don’t have to limit the show only to relationship/romance stories. We could also have any stories that are summer-specific – a business that only lasts one summer? Or someone who adopts a new identity for one summer? A friendship that lasts for the summer?

OUT OF MY DEPTH: Basically, stories about people getting in over their heads. We have one story about a man who comes up with a truly inventive and diabolical plan to pay off a debt, only to have the whole thing spectacularly backfire on him. We’d like more stories about simple plans or overconfidence or even just fingers-crossed-hope-it-works type of situations that quickly become too complicated or difficult. Because we have a few personal stories already in mind for this show, a story about a larger institution or business or enterprise could work well for this show.

GOSSIP: We'd like to do a show about the strange and surprising ways that gossip works. We've got one possible story about American researchers in Malawi, who track the way local communities think about AIDS. For more than a decade, they've been giving notebooks to certain women in Malawi, who are tasked with writing down whatever gossip they hear about AIDS in their villages – who's got it, how they got it, why they got it, whether they're getting treated, etc. In this way, they've figured out how people's ideas, and misconceptions, about the disease have changed – and how to better fight it. We'd love to have more pitches about the good side of gossip, the utility of gossip. Or perhaps well-meaning gossip that went very wrong. Or stories about how gossip spreads in unexpected ways — maybe you told the guy sitting next to you in an airplane a top-secret story, and then heard it repeated back to you at a party three years later. That kind of thing. Stories about how gossip has changed history would be great, too. We'd probably like to avoid stories of straight-up mean gossip that had awful consequences – just because we're all familiar with those stories. That said, if there's a really great one, we'd certainly consider it.

WAIT – YOU’RE THE CAVALRY?: This is a show about imperfect heroes. Much of the show we’re planning is about an FBI whistleblower who is now single-handedly reviewing thousands of criminal convictions at the heart of the famous scandal in the FBI’s crime lab ten years ago. But while the whistleblower may have been a great whistleblower – he’s obsessive, honest, and repulsed by deceit – he may not be the best person for the job of cleaning up the mess. We’re now looking for more stories about possibly flawed saviors. Maybe a story about a person or a group that is called to fix the problem they themselves created?

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