You push play on your iPhone and the podcast starts.
It’s a man talking. He’s a thoughtful guy, maybe a little pensive.
Maybe you imagine him wearing glasses, talking into the microphone with a sincerity that draws you in, as he tells stories about simple people across the face of our nation. Sometime after the first descriptive paragraph, he introduces himself.
You’re listening to Ira Class.
No. That’s not a typo. You’re not listening to “This American Life.” You’re listening to its parody, “THAT American Life,” a podcast that is growing in popularity, and produced right here in Louisville, Kentucky.
He gives great Facebook. It runs the gamut from thoughts on pop culture, to food, to random thoughts.
Then there’s this, from a couple of weeks ago:
My podcast just hit a hundred thousands downloads.
Wait. A hundred thousand? Isn’t that a pretty big number? Isn’t Stanley the vegan jerky guy? What’s up with this hugely successful podcast?
Turns out, before he was a successful vegan entrepreneur (vegentrenuer?) Stan had dreams of making it in comedy, dreams that he shared with a cadre of his high school buddies. Dreams that he occasionally revisits, in the form of a podcast that he makes with those buddies, even though they are scattered around the northeast and the midwest.
I recently got the chance to catch up with Stan, and he brought along his friend and podcast collaborator, Micki Dwyer.
Stan starts with the basics. It’s “a parody of This American Life.” It started out as an Ira Glass impression with Stan “doing it for Sarah (his fiancé) on road trips, it was just me repeating things he said.”
Then last fall, Stan made a two minute podcast just for laughs. He sent it to Micki to share in the mirth. Afterwards, the idea dropped by the wayside for several months. Just another idea in Stan’s head.
Eventually Stan decided to come back to it, partly due to encouragement from Micki.
The first episode was written by Stan, and local comic Sean Keller. They uploaded it to iTunes at the end of June, assuming it would get lost in the “vastness of the internet.”
They figured “four people would calls us f**s, and that would be it.”
It was fun to make, though, so Stan decided to reach out to his high school comedy buddies.
Micki Dwyer, Matt Gifford, and Ken Fletcher joined the podcast for its second episode.
The writing process mostly happens online. Stan says they get on Google chat, and try to come up with a story.”
Micki adds, “Once we have a story, it’s just all jokes.”
It’s worth mentioning those actors include a cross section of some of the Louisville theater scene’s favorites including Leah Roberts, Sarah East, Ben Owens and Erin Crites.
The music is often wonderfully comedic itself. Outside of the incidental instrumentals that lead the action from scene to scene, Dwyer creates parody songs that take aim at Train, Joan Osborne, and Mackelmore. The songs tie in thematically to the action in the story. The best stand alone song is “Drips of Atmosphere” by the make believe band Caboose.
Stan and crew made some episodes, but they all have busy lives, and things to do.
They went on like this, sort of producing the podcast in a vacuum, uploading it for fun, and expecting no one to listen to it. Until about a month ago.
One day, a friend called saying, “Dude, you’re on the front page of iTunes.”
To Stan and company’s amazement the podcast had picked up hugely in popularity, peaking at number six on iTunes comedy charts, and number twenty-four in the overall charts. That’s the twenty-fourth most popular iTunes download.
In the world.
It’s weird to think that a podcast can be downloaded a hundred thousand times, and it still hasn’t made a dime. Stanley and Micki aren’t rockstars. They haven’t quit their day jobs.
Their bump in numbers won them a sponsorship from audible.com, but their only hope monetarily speaking is to be able to pay actors little.
Where does it go from here? Stan says “We all have really low expectations. We have an audience right now, and thats the most fun.”
Micki adds, “It’s turning into a community, it’s not just us throwing it into the nothingness of the internet.”
“This American Life” succeeds because it illuminates the beauty and complexity of everyday Americans. “THAT American Life” does the opposite. It takes the everyday Americans and revels in how silly there are. It highlights how prone we all are to self delusion and foolishness.
Making fun of Americans is like shooting fish in a barrel. What makes Ira Class’s Americans so appealing, is that he never judges these people. Most often, he gets so sucked into their world that he starts being a big idiot right along with them.
Class’s pure excitement for the human condition involves him in the action in a way that Glass’s more aloof fascination never can.
More importantly, since Class is serving as the audience’s narrator and surrogate, when he gets sucked in, we get sucked in too.
So when listeners are laughing with the characters Stan and Micki and Ken and Matt have written, we aren’t just laughing at some country buffoon or misdirected bodybuilder.
We are laughing at ourselves.
Laugh along with us by downloading full episodes of THAT American Life from iTunes. Visit the Facebook page, which is chock full of extras, including full downloads of the song “Drips of Atmosphere,” by Caboose.