TAL theme list

For those of you not on the AIR list, here are the upcoming themes for This American Life. -mia


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 day or two delay sometimes to get 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.

Best, Julie (julie@thislife.org)

CONTENTS UNKNOWN: Stories about guessing, fantasizing and projecting. For this show, we’re sort of running the gamut from the literal to the metaphorical. A literal “contents unknown” story is one we’re planning about people who bid blind on abandoned storage units up for auction. Most of the bidders have a pretty good idea what they’re doing (if you see any hint of a Christmas ornament in the unit, RUN AWAY) but aside from small clues, it’s a lot of guesswork and luck. A more metaphorical take on the theme is a story about a guy who completely loses his memory and essentially allows all of the people around him (family, friends, doctors, bureaucrats) to write his identity for him. We’re now looking for more stories about entering into something where all you really know are the faint outlines of the thing. Maybe entering into a relationship – either romantic or professional – where you really don’t know what you’re getting into? Or someone trying to trust something they’re not sure is true? Stories that head down the more literal route would be great, too. Maybe trying to track down the ingredients to something? Or facing a huge archive without knowing what’s inside? This show is coming up soon and, honestly, we’re feeling a little desperate so if you’ve got something that might be wedged into a “contents unknown” kind of theme, please send it our way.

PARENT TRAP: When a woman is diagnosed with terminal cancer, she writes a series of letters to her 16 year old daughter, to be delivered after her death on the daughter’s successive birthdays. From the time she is 17 until she turns 29, the daughter gets a letter in the mail – sent by her father, via FedEx – each year. The letters are beautiful, filled with encouragement and affirmations of love. They are also filled with plenty of upbeat words about the Mormon Church and moral advice. Moral advice that, over the years, starts to feel increasingly chafing to the daughter who is moving further away, socially, politically and spiritually, from the Church and her mother’s views. The daughter begins to feel like she is receiving letters written for a girl she no longer is but who her dead mother wishes her to be. For this show, we’re looking for stories about how – with the best of intentions – parents and children can sort of manipulate each other into positions they’re not sure they want to be in. We’d love funny stories for this show – maybe an actual “parent trap” type story of setting parents up or the parents setting the kids up. Maybe a story about a parent organization or event? A parent trying to do the right thing and doing exactly the wrong thing? Stories about feeling trapped in a family situation would work well, too.

HEROES: A woman in Las Vegas has spent the last few years in a battle with her daughter’s elementary school about a number of different issues – a prominent one being campus security. So when she and another mom find a first grader wandering alone alongside a road near the school one day, they are outraged. They pick up the boy and call the school district saying they’re returning the boy but have also called the local media to document the egregious lack of security at the school. The moms show up with the boy for the drop-off and are promptly arrested and charged with kidnapping. It’s the climax to the story where both the moms and the school have been gunning for each other for years, the battle increasingly fueled with the idea of doing “what’s best for the children.” We have another story about a guy trying to single-handedly save the integrity of Wikipedia entries from his friend who is purposely planting false information on the site. Other stories that’d be great for this show could include stories about unsung heroes – people who maybe don’t believe their actions were heroic despite evidence to the contrary? Or people who shun the spotlight? Or can’t escape their hero status? Maybe a story about someone who thinks he is a hero but everyone else thinks he’s a pain in the ass?

THE ISLAND: We’d like for all the stories in this show to be held together by a place, instead of an idea. So all the stories have to take place on an island. That’s it. Just an island. But a real island, not a “no man is an island”/”every man is an island” kind of thing. We’re working on one story with the Planet Money team about the economic histories of Jamaica and Barbados and how a fairly small, benign monetary move had very large consequences for those countries. Another story is about an attempt to repatriate lab chimps to an uninhabited island in Senegal. So stories that take place in the United States might be good for this show – Long Island? Rock Island? Hawaii? We were working on a story about Guantanamo that looks like it’ll probably fall through so any stories about Gitmo would work great for this show, too. Ideally, the island would be somewhat of a character in the story or at least the geography would play a part in the how’s and why’s of the story. Maybe a story about being stranded on an island? Opening a business on an island? Fantasizing about an island?

PERMANENT RECORD: A few months ago we were working on a really great, small story. A guy sent us a letter telling us about this time his father went to inter the guy’s mother’s ashes at a Veteran’s Cemetery in Illinois. Because both the father and the mother were vets, it was the father’s understanding that the interment would be free. But when he shows up at the cemetery, he’s told there is a $14.95 processing fee for the ashes. The father gets totally pissed, sees this as penny-pinching and a total betrayal of the U.S. government and, in his anger, dumps the ashes in the parking lot, goes home and tells his shocked kids what he did. Over the years – until his own death – the father is embarrassed by the story whenever the kids bring it up and accuses them of always “focusing on the bad things.” So it’s kind of a funny story of spazzing out, right? And the son tells the story beautifully. But when we call the Veteran’s Cemetery to fact-check the story, it turns out it’s not true. They DON’T charge a processing fee and, in fact, they double-check and say the mother’s ashes actually ARE interred at the cemetery – right next to the father’s ashes. We call back the son and ask what’s up. He’s shocked. He SWEARS this is the story his father told and his brother and sisters back him up on it. None of them can figure out why their dad would tell them this crazy story if it weren’t true. And all they can figure out is that their dad, in his later years, began to have a horrible memory. And maybe he was just messing with them the first time he told them and then, after that, forgot the story, forgot that it wasn’t true, relied on the kids’ version and then it just became fact. SoooooŠwe’re looking for more stories where something that maybe isn’t true becomes the permanent record. We’re working on a story about a an exonerated prisoner who keeps getting falsely accused of other crimes but that story may fall through so we’re open to more stories about trying to free yourself from an official “record.” Stories that might work well: maybe stories about trying to get free from a notorious reputation or past deed? Or trying to set the record straight? Or trying to change an identity?


TRUE URBAN LEGENDS: The thing that’s remarkable about this story is that you’ve already heard this story: a really normal guy who attends a very conservative evangelical college also leads a secret life on weekends, flying to places like Las Vegas and the San Fernando Valley, to star in hardcore gay porn films where he is known as “power bottom” Vincent De Salvo. The thing that I love about this story is that it’s true. Because I swear I’ve heard this exact story from my college roommate’s friend-from-high school’s sister. So what we want to try and do now is a whole show where the really remarkable part of the story is that, while the story conforms to the narrative structure and has all the editorial qualities of an urban legend, it’s actually true. We’re also thinking about doing something about the “monster fish” that showed up in a puddle behind a Dunkin’ Donuts in Baltimore a few years back (a popular story among the D.C./Baltimore set but, remarkably, little known to the rest of the country). We’ve got our eye on a story about organ trafficking, too. We’d love any other story you can think of that either traces the origins of an urban legend in a surprising way or lays out in a classic ‘urban-legend’ kind of way. A story about someone who created an urban legend, or maybe believes they are at the heart of an urban legend, would be great, too. And finally: we’re thinking we may just do a small part of the show where people admit the urban legends they believed for far too long. If you’ve got one of these stories about your own naïve beliefs, will you let us know?

MILLION DOLLAR IDEA: A few months ago our staff got to talking about our get-rich-quick schemes. It turns out Ira’s Million Dollar Idea is to domesticate foxes – he claims it’s easier and faster than you’d think. And then you’d have a really, really smart dog. A really smart, really crafty, really sneaky dog. Which sounds like a bad idea to me but I’d like to hear more of the argument before I truly pass judgment. Anyway, it got us to thinking that we’d love to do a whole show about various Million Dollar Ideas. The stories could be about unorthodox approaches to making money. Or, maybe, unorthodox approaches to solving a problem and going at it in a really big way. If someone is in the middle of enacting their Million Dollar Idea, that’d be great. Or stories about past successes that seemed incredibly unlikely at the time of inception. So-crazy-it-just-might-work stories would work well in this show, too.

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