Verb: to utilize any and all objects around you in order to do something slightly useful, but more especially, just damned cool.


1. "You locked my keys in the car! Well, do you have a piece of gum? We're just going to have to MacGyver our way in and get them."

2. "So we're going to die in a nuclear explosion! Well do you have a Zippo and some gum? Let's MacGyver ourselves a spaceship.

3. "So we're in Hell! Well, do you have a Zippo, a piece of gum, and a shoestring? We're just going to have to MacGyver our way back to Earth.

MacGyver used to be my favourite show as a kid, but a few seasons in, it started resorting to the A-Team trick. MacGyver would be stuck up a mountain with bad guys chasing him. There would be no trees from which to fashion a tactical nuclear missile, no household chemicals to create a smokescreen, no credit cards to mess up the traffic lights and, indeed, no traffic lights to mess up.

Just as it looked hopeless, he'd stumble across a deserted shack. Luckily, inside would be some welding gear that still worked, an old basket, and enough old cloth to build a hot air balloon. You'd see him sewing shitty bits of paper and old sheets together, but when he launched the balloon, somehow it had transformed into a perfectly circular balloon, with a few dirty patches glued on the side.

Shame. Great show before it went downhill. MacGyver saves the kids, MacGyver helps an old lady cross the road, and I'm not even going to mention the hockey episode - oh, shit, I did.

This American Life episode #244
Initially aired August 15, 2003

Stories about ingenious solutions to everyday problems, the kind of things we rarely get to do in our everyday lives.

Ira Glass talks to This American Life contributing editor Sarah Vowell in New York CIty during the 2003 blackout about how she's dealing without power. Turns out she's managed to light a candle and...well, that's it, really. They talk about how even in the most extreme situations we just sit tight and wait for the problem to go away. (4 minutes)

Act One: Bolt of Lightning, Pro and Con

Ira interviews Chuck Klosterman (of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs fame) who tells the story of how he survived his girlfriend's wrath one Valentine's Day. He gets trapped by not realizing that giving gifts on the holiday isn't something that only happens in grade school. Turns out, his solution made him feel worse than if he had just been honest with her. (6 minutes)

Act Two: Files in Cakes, Ha!

Felix Solis reads an excerpt of a book called Prisoners' Inventions by a California inmate who writes under the pseudonym Angelo. The book is exactly what it sounds like - a collection of things incarcerated felons can make to bring some semblance of homeyness to a jail cells including privacy curtains made out of old bed sheets and paper clips, large drinking cups out of toilet paper and saran wrap and the like. His inventions are ingenious to say the least. (4 minutes)

Act Three: So Crazy It Just Might Work

Elizabeth Gilbert's story about a man who desperately wanted to make a movie. It was called The Knockdowns and was supposed to be filmed in Boston, but that meant dealing with the teamster's union and that meant dealing with the mob. This would have been a problem if this had been a normal movie, but it's not - as the story unfolds we learn that the entire movie is an FBI front designed to nail the mobsters behind the movie once and for all. It worked, but then something odd happened - the FBI agent behind the bust decided he really, really wanted to finish making the movie. This is a wonderfully convoluted tale and is a pleasure to listen to. (25 minutes)

Act Four: A Girl's Guide to Mending the Unbendable

Susans Burton relates the story of her first high school love and what it was like to write about it and be critiqued by complete strangers. The MacGyvering in this instance is a mental one, how we can take one set of data and come up with completely disparate results depending on the situation.

Burton's a wonderful producer of documentary radio (she crafted the Come Back to Afghanistan episode of This American Life, a story that won the Silver Award for Best Documentary at the 2003 Third Coast International Audio Festival) but her personal stories ring hollow to me. As introverted as most This American Life contributors are, hers are almost too personal and, frankly, not very interesting. Well written, to be sure, but not my style. (17 minutes)

Specifics (running time, episode number, etc.) taken from
The analysis/synopsis is mine.

Back to the This American Life Episode Guide, 2003

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