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Parties for Smarties

4 minute read
Richard Corliss

Time for the “Song Styles” round on Whose Line Is It Anyway?, in which a panelist must invent a song about a member of the studio audience. Tonight’s subject is named (just try rhyming this!) Niroshi; and the tune must be a rock love ballad. Yet panelist Brad Sherwood hardly breaks a sweat as he quick-composes a plaintively catchy melody and croons lyrics made up on the spot. He’ll take his beloved Niroshi to “the Rive Gau-shi,” where they’ll “cook some brio-shi,” and across “the Pacific O-shi” to “put on some suntan lo-shi.” Finally, he snuggles up “so clo-shi,” to sing, “Niroshi, I love yoo-oo-ou.” An instant golden oldie, written and performed in two minutes flat.

On the NPR quiz show Says You! panelists are asked to distinguish between rock and stone. Columnist Carolyn Faye Fox says, “There are no rocks named Mick Jagger.” Hard Copy’s Barry Nolan quickly adds, “There are no stones older than him.” The World’s Tony Kahn asks, “Would you like to pass a gallrock?” The correct answer: a stone is a rock that has been treated or processed. Or as Kahn quips, “A stone is a chip off the old rock.”

Wit under pressure is a rare commodity these days, especially in that debased form of infotainment known as the game show. Yes, the gallop of thundering nerds can be heard on Jeopardy!, but most shows have daters or honeymooners lewdly embarrassing each other. The mud wrestling is only verbal, but it’s still a tiny step from Jerry Springer–and a long way from the stellar font of quiz shows, radio’s Information, Please (1938-48), hosted by Clifton Fadiman and featuring the mordant wits Fred Allen and Oscar Levant. Back then folks tuned in to meet people cleverer than they were, not more deranged; and intelligence was an attribute to flaunt, not hide like an appendix scar. Today’s game shows might take their cue from another ’40s radio favorite, It Pays to Be Ignorant.

Says You!, originating from WGBH Boston and heard on 65 public-radio stations, restores some intellectual equilibrium to the airwaves. Created and hosted by Richard Sher, it offers cunning posers to two teams of players: the sports origin of such phrases as “play for keeps” (marbles) and “to get a rise out of” (fishing); words derived from the Latin for “above the eyebrow” (supercilious) and “before and after” (preposterous); definitions of recent coinages like adhocracy and nouvelle cuisine (which Kahn defined as “a fashionable way to starve in polite company”).

On Says You! you will hear real or bluff definitions of such words as trank, chelp, and fubsy. You’ll ponder this riddle: “Why is the third hand on a clock called the second hand?” But the abiding fun is in the college bull-session informality of the players’ banter. Most of them are wizards of the Boston media, and they enjoy one another’s wit almost as much as they enjoy cutting in with a bon mot of their own. It’s an invigorating workout just to keep up with them, and Sher presides with the indulgence of a genial night watchman in the Mensa wing at Bedlam.

Whose Line, hosted with an easy bluster by Drew Carey (whose sitcom this show follows on ABC), is based on the British TV parlor game that made its debut in 1988. Performers are given characters to play, songs to devise, scenes to act out–all, we are told, instantly ad lib. A skit with a Zorro theme required that each actor’s speech begin with consecutive letters of the alphabet. Series regular Ryan Stiles got the letter X. No problem: “Xavier Cugat once said to me… “

Doing presto comedy is a special talent; many Whose Line players are improv veterans who have appeared on the Brit version. (And, don’t ask us why, a lot of them did time in Canada.) They possess the verbal agility of the Says You! gang, but their real comic eloquence is in body language. Check out Wayne Brady’s encyclopedic jive as he enacts “the history of 20th century dance in 30 seconds” or his tail wagging and panting when told he is a superhero named Playful Licking Puppy Boy. A star is born!

Whose Line’s current run ends March 17, but it’s a good bet to return. The show boasts solid ratings, costs next to nothing to produce and provides priceless laughs for people with three-figure IQs. Somewhere the ghost of Oscar Levant is watching Whose Line, listening to Says You! He may even be smiling.

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