StoryCorps on PBS: Must-See, Can't-Miss, Your-Life-Depends-on-It TV

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First off: tune to your PBS station tonight, just before 10:30, at the end of the documentary Salt, on the returning series POV. Or TiVo or VCR the show. Do it now. I’ll wait. I’m waaaiting. OK, here’s why.

Listeners of NPR’s Morning Edition know to tune in each Friday for a new episode of StoryCorps, a series of audio autobiographies of, forgive the phrase, ordinary people. “No such thing,” radio producer and StoryCorps founder Dave Isay would say, and the personal histories he has collected prove it: they are warm sagas, of family and work, related in unique American voices – valentines in the vernacular. Isay, whose motto is “Listening is an act of love,” began his project in 2003, with one booth in Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal. Since then, his teams have recorded more than 30,000 interviews, in all 50 states; the testimonies are stored in the Library of Congress and have spawned two books.

A fierce protector of his franchise and its social goal of monitoring the heartbeat of American life, Isay rejected many offers to turn StoryCorps episodes into movies or TV shows. But Mike and Tim Rauch, two Brooklyn animators in their twenties, went ahead and made a few cartoon versions of StoryCorps favorites. Isay approved, PBS found some money, and five of the Rauch shorts will be airing as end-pieces to the POV series, beginning tonight.

The five shorts I’ve seen are poignant narratives illustrated in a simple, direct style. They recall Nick Park’s early Aardman short Creature Comforts (and the TV series spun from it), which put the comments of British citizens in the stop-motion-animation mouths of zoo creatures. Nothing that extreme here; the Rauches worked from photographs of the StoryCorps participants. Still, as with the NPR spots, it’s the voices, and the emotions they carry, that truly animate this series.

In “Q+A,” Sarah Littman answers a list of questions posed by her 11-year-old, whose Asperger’s Syndrome has deepened and clarified his mother’s love. (The animated version is available via YouTube, and embedded below.) “Germans in the Woods” relates, in stark black-and-white drawings, a man’s haunting memory of World War II. In “The Icing on the Cake,” an immigrant Mexican woman recalls how she would go on overnight cleaning-lady tours of a Los Angeles office building with take her two young children, outfitted in pajamas and fed Lipton’s Cup-o-Noodles before they slept on an office couch. Studs Terkel, whose own oral histories inspired StoryCorps, talks about the degeneration of communication in “The Human Voice.”

The prize, though, is tonight’s episode ˜ you will be watching it, won’t you? ˜ called “Danny & Annie.” Danny Perasa was an OTB clerk; his wife Annie, a nurse. In 2004 this Brooklyn couple recorded the first of their conversations, always about Danny‚s adoration of his wife. Over the next two years, they sat for many more self-portraits, Isay told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, they “became kind of the patriarch and matriarch of the project.”

Beneath the rasping New Yawk tones of another Danny ˜ DeVito ˜ the soul of an urban poet can be heard. Under the skin of an aging bookie pulsed the heart of a kid swept away by love. “Ya see, the thing of it is, I always feel guilty when I say ‘I love you’ to you, and I say it so often. I say it to remind you that, as dopey as I am, it’s comin’ from in here. It’s like hearing a beautiful song from a busted old radio, and it’s nice of you to keep the radio around the house.”

I’ll just say that if Danny and Annie don’t touch your heart, seek immediate medical attention, because you might not have one.

(Read the rest of this post only if, for some reason, you can’t see tonight’s POV, or if you refuse to download this YouTube clip of Isay on Democracy Now!, where he plays the full Danny-and-Annie colloquy.)

In 2006, Danny was diagnosed with terminal cancer. A StoryCorps squad came to the Perasas’ Brooklyn home on Feb. 17 of that year to record Danny’s final testament of devotion for his Annie. “I always said the only thing I have to give you is a poor gift,” he said between painful breaths, “and it’s myself. And I always gave it. And if there’s a way to come back and give it, I’ll do that too.”

Though his body was depleted, Danny’s declarations of love were as strong as ever: “She lights up the room in the mornin’ when she tells me to put both hands on her shoulders so she can support me. She lights up my life when she says to me at night, ‘Wouldn’t you like a little ice cream?’ or ‘Would you please drink more water?’ I mean, those aren’t very romantic things to say, but they stir my heart. In my mind, in my heart, there has never been, there is not now and never will be another Annie.”

Their recording was aired on PBS a week later; Danny died that same day.